Written by: Freddy Vorlop
On November 22, the French men’s national team began its campaign to defend their world championship at the 2022 Men’s World Cup in Qatar. Les Bleus possess a talented roster and have been praised for their performances on the pitch thus far. Off the pitch, France has made headlines for featuring players of a variety of ethnic backgrounds, a number of whom are from former French colonies. Oftentimes, these players are first or second generation immigrants. Many were also raised in banlieues, a French term used to describe the poorer suburbs– areas often associated with immigrants. In short, many of France’s biggest footballing stars have connections to its marginalized former colonies, as well as marginalized communities within France. One such example is Kylian Mbappé, who is considered one of the best talents in world football and was born in a Parisian banlieue to parents from Cameroon and Algeria. Another is Karim Benzema, a descendent of Algerian immigrants and winner of the 2022 Ballon D’Or trophy for the best player in the world. While these players are determined to (once-again) prove their prowess as world champions, a look at history shows the foundation of racism and xenophobia that lies beneath the surface of French soccer.
Black, blanc, beur! The year was 1998 and France was on top of the world, having just defeated Brazil to secure their first ever World Cup title. The nation was rife with celebration, the Champs-élysées filled with song, and the Arc de Triomphe was illuminated with the face of national hero Zinedine Zidane, who was born in a Marseille banlieue to Algerian immigrants. This was a potent symbol of the greater ethnic diversity that French football– and the country- was beginning to experience. Black, blanc, beur (black, white, arab) quickly became a national rallying cry to celebrate this diversity and the potential of immigration. French media at the time put forth the narrative that France as a whole desired a progressive, multicultural future. But, the story was not so binary. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, criticized the diversity of the national team in 1996. He called out those who refused to sing La Marseillaise, the national anthem which includes grossly racist lyrics such as “impure blood, water our fields”. Amidst the jubilation of 1998, however, even Le Pen was quiet. In a moment not unlike the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the prevailing narrative in France was one of national unity and communal optimism on racial issues. Black, blanc, beur: could this national sentiment be maintained, or was the country’s apparent progressivism conditional on sporting success?
Fast forward a dozen years. to 2011. The French national team hits rock-bottom. After only being able to muster up a single point in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup, France was removed from the bracket. Many in the defeated nation were searching for answers, and an ugly xenophobia once again showed its face. In a secretly recorded conversation, head coach Laurent Blanc agreed to a proposal from Francois Blaqart, technical director of the Fédération Française de Football (FFF), to support racial and ethnic quotas for French national teams. Quotas were never established and Blaqart was fired, but Blanc would go on to coach the team at the 2012 European Championships. This incident, while certainly alarming, is not isolated. In 2005, following a similarly disappointing exit in the 2004 Euros, prominent French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut mocked the team’s nickname, saying “these days the team is black-black-black, which makes it the laughingstock of Europe”. After years of representing France, some players began to notice a pattern. Nicholas Anelka, a former French striker of Martiniquais descent, once said that “When the France team fails to win people start talking straight away about the players’ skin colors and religious beliefs”. Karim Benzema claimed “If I score, I’m French… if I don’t, I’m an Arab.” France’s players who are racially non-white and ethnically non-French likely feel extra pressure due to the abuse they risk suffering.
If France prevails in Qatar, a-la 1998 and 2018, will the nation see the same wave of optimism and pro-immigration sentiment? More importantly, will this rhetoric translate into action? Despite any self-congratulatory narrative about a triumph of multiculturalism, France’s immigrant and minority populations still face a considerable number of unaddressed challenges. While elite athletes are celebrated as national heroes, their communities are often looked down upon and languish from government underinvestment. France’s banlieues are a place where becoming a professional athlete is often seen as the only escape and a safety net from poverty and police brutality. Is it possible that another sporting triumph of French multiculturalism might lead to impactful policy changes? Or, if failure is the result, will French stars of different races and ethnicities suffer from a rise in racism and xenophobia? France’s National Front party, led by Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine Le Pen, recently secured their best ever electoral result. Their platform rests on the back of anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric. Many expect this voice to amplify in the case of an early French exit from the World Cup. Of course, these questions apply not only to France, but to many nations appearing in Qatar. For example, England star Raheem Sterling is Jamaican-born, Canada’s best player Alphonso Davies was born to Liberian parents in a Ghanaian refugee camp, and the United States has players born in three different countries on their roster. In a world where travel is increasingly accessible and unequal opportunity encourages people to migrate, nationality is often complicated. More than just footballing prowess is on the line this winter in Qatar– narratives will be written in ways that will impact marginalized populations. As Les Blues and thirty-one other teams take the field, be attentive to the implications of their results.