World Cup 2006: Issues of race and nationality in the French football team

, by Alfred

Though started in slow motion, this World Cup has shown much more than expected about France, culturally and athletically speaking. "We" have been very vocal in the stands ; "we"’ve been heard to say that this team was too black to proudly represent France. Now that the dark natives of football have offered France its second World Cup final in History, we can ask : what France are "we" talking about ?

The Free French Forces are in the final

We’re in the final. Us, France, our “Bleus”, our boys, team France. Funny how we evolve. Two weeks ago, when the whole country didn’t give them a chance out of the first round, some of “us” let it all out. First and foremost, of course, saying out loud what all of us whisper in our minds [1], the old fascist Le Pen has taken upon himself to officially announce our views on the matter. Well, here it is: not only are they playing badly, but they’re not even white-skinned! France cannot identify to this team, he said; “ Maybe because the manager has exaggerated the proportion of colored players on the team. [2]He also complained that some players did not sing the national anthem. Wow. But we’ve heard this before; Le Pen has said similar things at each World Cup since 98. The echo to his words is not simply self-referential, though.

Le Pen says out loud what former left-wing philosopher turned rabid conservative Alain Finkielkraut was recently whispering to Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz [3]. This French team is not “black-blanc-beur [4] anymore, it’s “black-black-black”! he said gingerly, not thinking for a second that so subtle a theory would be republished in French news and start a controversy. The blackness of this team is a problem. The distorted echo to this problem could also be heard in the harsh criticism agaist coach Raymond Domenech and his team before the tournament started: they’re too old, they’re not running, they don’t want it, they’re tired. They’re going to put us to shame like in 2002. Too many blacks in 98 was OK, but if they start losing, now we might have to think about reviewing their passports...

I will avoid considerations on the poetic justice of their playing the final, one reason being that, as most Frenchmen and citizens of the world, I never thought the team would go anywhere this year. What I am interested in, rather, is the shift from the “black-blanc-beur” team of 98 and its 2006 version, once cursed and now redeemed.

Unfrenchness, a French football tradition

After making his ugly comment, Finkielkraut spent quite some time trying to explain it. In this interview with Elkabach [5], he told us a little story: “He [his father] saw the composition of team France, Kissovski, Copa, a.k.a. Kopachevski, Piantoni and he would joke around and say: "are there any Frenchmen on this team?” By that he meant French natives, it was an innocent joke, harmless laughter whose echo I tried to describe in this text [the Ha’aretz interview]. [6]

So it was a joke. His little story does hit a point: the best national sides France ever had to offer were always made of immigrants, sons of immigrants and of course Frenchmen of Caribbean descent. The 1958 team Finkielkraut here alludes to was the first French football team to reach a World Cup semi-final, and in it were playing the first international stars of French football: Poles with Frenchified names, Italians, sons of miners, sons of the working class. The 1980s team, twice World Cup semi-finalists and Europe champions in 1984, was a true festival of origins: the great Platini, Bellone, Battiston, Ferreri were all sons of Italian immigrants, while Fernandez and Amoros were sons of Spaniards; Janvion and Trésor represented the French West Indies and Tigana and Touré African origins. Football players are not so much extracted from ethnic groups as they are from social groups: football is the social elevator, the ghetto dream, hope out of the mines. Football develops particularly in industrial areas and banlieues because those are where immigrant populations and lower social classes live. Football makes a lot of sense as a professional prospect there: it takes you out of hell. It’s a truth as old as professional football in France.

In an interview for the French newspaper Libération, manager Domenech—himself the son of a Republican Loyalist from Catalonia who sought refuge in France after the Spanish Civil War—said this: “As a kid, I lived in what we would now call a bad neighborhood in Lyons. It had a charged name: the United States. There was just one family of French origins there, just one. It was a permanent mix. There were no “blacks” there; that’s an expression I have never used. There were Congolese, Ivorians, Malians, yes, but no “blacks”. Others came from North Africa, or from Spain. So we played with that. We’d have our own little World Cups [...] [7]. The working class has always been the main source for team France players. No matter: the problem, here, clearly, for Finkielkraut and Le Pen, is the players’s skin color. Ragheads and niggers have replaced wops and polacks. At least wops were relatively white and catholic...

Symbolic separations between the National Front and mainstream French politics are no laughing matter these days. Le Pen’s ideas are constantly recycled and reused; he knows it and profits from it. In 98 he was seen as a party pooper, busy as we all were celebrating France’s title. Since then, we’ve had all the excuses in the world, from 9/11 to the October riots, a series of skillful one-twos between fundamentalists and crypto-patriots, and now Le Pen is snickering at the sorry sight of Finkielkraut doing his dirty job for free. It’s in the air. Nothing new under the sun, though. These are times of acceptance for French petty racism, without shame, even with a trace a pride.

Thus Finkielkraut cannot possibly recognize he agrees with Le Pen; clasping at anything in his attempts at redeeming himself, the good philosopher offered that what made Europe snicker was the obvious “post-colonial privilege” shown in the many black players of France. Good try, Alain. It is quite puzzling that he would expose post-colonial privilege in sports. For one, I thought he did not believe in post-colonial anything, and second, I would think that post-colonial privilege in France resides in the ugly system of “FrancAfrica”, a network of economic and military alliances built by the Gaullists and African potentates after independence. But no; Finkielkraut suggests a sort of slave trade of football talents, aiming more or less directly at French players of African descent. He also implies quite subtly that they do not deserve their spot on the team, that they are chosen because they’re better than other, more French players. Very subtle technique, Alain. Of course he knows that you have to be French to be on the team; he hints that some are more French than others.

Alright; so we’re back to the old saying: in France, you’re French as long as you win, and you’re black again as soon as you lose.

Thuram to the rescue

Defender Lilian Thuram has decided to echo Domenech’s words. Replying to the fat fascist’s comments, he declared: “By the way, I am not black.” The player from Guadeloupe never talks randomly; his little joke is not as harmless as it seems. He is not black, he is French. When he sends Le Pen back to history books for suggesting that being black is intrinsically unFrench, the Finkielkrauts and other whisperers are also targeted. Thuram emphasizes the visual aspect of this brand of common racism. The same kind of people made a big deal of France’s first black TV news anchor a few months ago: you gotta understand, we’re not used to seeing black people, except on TV dancing or singing or playing sports, or in the streets sweeping, or in hospitals, or post offices, or in the army...Ahem. What Finkielkraut and Le Pen do not appreciate is that the very invisibility of non-white groups is paradoxically revealed in their visibility in team France. What is shocking is not so much that there are so many black people on the team, but that you see so few everywhere else.

Where are they coming from, all those darkies, we didn’t see them coming?!? French history according to Le Pen as criticized by Thuram is in many ways the history most of us learned in school: the few blacks mentioned are generally Africans, and black Frenchmen are generally absent or made virtually colorless, through the potent magic of the Republic. In sports, they are tolerated for their feats only. Blacks being mostly muscle machines, the least you could expect from them is a good spectacle, right? I mean, what’s the point of them being French otherwise?

Something has changed between July 98 and July 2006. The October riots will have revealed on a large scale that for many, integration means shut the hell up and disappear. You can’t open your trap now, if you’re truly French, you won’t bring up your ethnic shit and bother the rest of us with it. I have already talked about the interesting differences in media treatment of the October riots and the later demonstrations against Prime Minister de Villepin’s labor law reforms. There are apparently political riots and thug riots, and you can tell one from the other by the amount of flags waving above burning cars. They are not judged on results but on estimated intentions. Similarly, all those black millionaires, playing in Italy, in England, they put their holy jersey to shame all the time they weren’t winning. To be so black without being heroic is not easy, in France. You have to do something grand to make it palatable, because sure, blacks are tolerated, but only so much. Thuram just asks for the right to be French. With a wry smile.

We came from the colonies to save the homeland

Black Frenchmen are used to be niggers all the time, and French only when it’s convenient. This is what Thuram explains in his intervention. When he gives his interview, right after the oh-so-classy elimination of Spain, he knows he was French again. He skirts conventions, and wittily recalls the lessons of October: he plays dumb with Le Pen, but he addresses France and says: if you are not with Le Pen, how about you make a little effort to be dignified Frenchmen? Like us. That’s right. That eternal France of human rights, that fantasy France we always hear about, nobody knows it better than French west Indians and immigrants: nobody has seen it greater or pettier, nobody has seen it in all its aspects and contradictions better than the dark children of Marianne. Thuram hints that the monolithic France of Le Pen and Finkielkraut and Max Gallo does not exist; France is not white, nor is it Christian or eternally just. More often than not she has treated her own children like shit, crushing them while pretending to welcome them in her arms. This would warrant some animosity, but hostile reactions have really been benign along the years, if you consider the damage done throughout history. You get used to taking the best anywhere you go, while remembering the worst, always, the insults and the scorn, the violence and the hatred. You learn irony really fast. Thuram rightly points that the France that goes out on the streets every time the football team wins seems to recognize itself in this team. For many this team is the only time they get to see somebody who looks like them representing France. This France knows in its bones what the other France, official France, owes its niggers, sent for generations as cannon fodder on frontlines, in mines, and in stadiums, in all corners of the world touched by the shining light of the French spirit.

The final remains to be played. Every four years, the World Cup brings about its moment of introspection: are we stupidly supporting France out of low brow jingoism, because they represent us French people, or because they play well, or both, or what? It’s hard to say. From abroad, it seems simple enough. Nobody even questions the Frenchness of French players. Foreigners could care less, because ultimately Zidane and Henry are the ones scoring for France, whether they be natives or not: this is how sports meritocracy works. In France, when everything is working out fine, some issues are altogether silenced...

I will also add this: as a child, I remember that my mother, who generally did not care about football, would nevertheless stop to let us know: “Janvion, he’s from Martinique! Trésor, Sonor, they’re from Guadeloupe. [8] Because French West Indians are French by themselves, in their little corner, in spite of France, since their skin color seems to void their passport, their presence on the national team has always been an invisible and silent revenge. In the end, what scares Le Pen and Finkielkraut is not so much that black players do not sing the national anthem—which we’ve seen the West Indians on the team blaring out as if they were going to take Monte Cassino again [9]. Rather, they fear that the mere presence of dark natives on the team will remind the whole country what it owes its second-class citizens, in the present and in the past, in its most trivial sports adventures and its most serious historical moments.

In the end, of course, this is only football. Whether France wins or not, streets will be jammed, we will celebrate the incredible comeback and magnificent goodbye of the great Zinedine Zidane, we will forever discuss Ribéry’s runs and Henry’s sweet moves, a new season will start and we will forget everything, slowly, and in the next year’s presidential elections Le Pen will probably make it to second round again, when he and all the other morons that govern us manage to find a way to make skin color an issue. In the meantime, I cannot help but rejoice; I know that France Thuram talks about with such subtle irony, and I savor every minute it is shown on TV. This France has a dubious past, but she doesn’t hide it. The very people she has hurt the most have come to save her, possibly for glory, but mostly for the demonstration. The lie of official France gets its shine from the dark-skinned and the unFrench it means to ignore. Thuram’s France is the one that did not meet expectations but tries to do better. Those she has hurt laugh softly, they’ve heard this one before, but once again they’ll give her another chance. This is how the dark children of France have always asked for their share. I do not know that this France even exists away from football fields, where she only exists through interpretation anyway. This is reason enough to praise it. The final irony though, resides in the fact that, in spite of Le Pen and Finkielkraut’s disgusting comments, Thuram’s France is also the only France that millions of foreigners even know. Now, and for years to come, for billions of football fans around the world, France is Zidane, Vieira, Henry and Ribéry, Arabs, West Indians, Africans and banlieue trash. Go figure.


[1This is a translation on the most infamous slogan used by the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen and his party, the National Front : “Il dit tout haut ce que les gens pensent tout bas.” This slogan, repeated time and time again since the 80s, has of course taken a life of its own : now that mainstream politicans are hunting on the National Front’s voting turf, using barely modified versions of his racist and alarmist arguments, it seems almost prophetic, to the delight of the fascist pig.

[2Personal translation.

[3Find it here in French. Sweet Alain explained quite wisely in this interview that there were too many black players on the French team. This, according to the thinker, was causing “the whole of Europe to snicker”. They’re probably not snickering as much today, two days before the final, but who knows.

[4Black, white, and Arabic, a take on the tricolor flag of France, and hint at the ethnic composition of the team that won in 98. The term was then very popular in the media.

[5In French here.

[6Personal translation

[7Personal translation.

[8Those players were part of the glorious French team of the late 70s to mid-80s.

[9When you talk about invisible history; while continental France was busy deciding whether or not they were going to fight the Nazis, the Free French Forces were fighting alongside Allied troops on all theaters of operations. They were for the most part composed of dissident West Indians and colonial troops. Many saw their first snow on the slopes of Monte Cassino, during Operation Torch.