By Elif Kayi
OPINION. France never really was a soccer nation. Not that they always had poor players or that they never managed good performances on the field. But if one considers soccer also from a socio-cultural point of view, the French never showed a particular enthusiasm for what one usually calls “the round ball”. For decades France figured as a kind of strange animal at the core of a European tradition, which had integrated the culture of penalties and corners into its history long ago.
The other day, a colleague reported to me on what an Algerian friend of his had told him about the French. “France does not love to love”. And we could even add: “France does not like to be liked”. Even when it comes to sport, the Frenchman likes to be different. For instance, skiing, tennis and cycling were the sophisticated sports that the average Frenchman used to like and follow –at least as long as France was winning which is no longer the case and at a time when cycling had not been completely brought into disrepute by massive doping cases and “fiddled” bikes. For the same average Frenchman soccer was in the meantime considered as mediocre “food for the masses”.
The French watched with fear in their eyes as English hooligans kicked Italian supporters in Belgium. This is England! Too much violence for the precious descendants of Voltaire. What about the Germans, full of beer and yelling their awful Schlager (chant)? Deutschland! Schland! Schlan! Lan! No comment about the theatric performance of the artists coming from the Italian boot! Ma che c…! Silence in front of the poor Spaniards, Portuguese and other Latinos, possessed by some trivial dribbles and completely indifferent to the socio-economic turmoil of their country ¡Que miseria! Let my friends coming from MENA countries please forgive me for not mentioning their team. But to be honest, does the average Frenchman even know they have a team? Of course I exaggerate and some French people are aware of what is going on outside their close European borders. Eventually…
To summarize the situation: We French, as messengers of the ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity had no reason to get involved into such poultry-yard entertainment!
We had had white Michel Platini of Italian origin and black Jean Tigana, who was born in Mali. However as they won the European Cup in 1984 we were in the middle of our fairy tale and strong believers of slogans like “We are all migrant children”, commonly shouted during demonstrations. So we did not even pay too much attention.
But the beginning of the 1990s turned out to be quite gloomy and our Marianne –our national emblem- was not in her best mood. After a decade full of hopes and egalitarian dreams, carried by the newly founded movement SOS Racism, we had just waken up, realizing that our dream of a society based on justice and equality of chances may just be a utopia.
1998 and the unexpected victory of the French national team came like the savior of our suffering souls and provided us with the necessary relief. We were finally leaving the grey zone to some more colors. We were “black, blanc, beur”(which means “Black, White, Arab”). We were “black” like Lilan Thuram, “blanc” like Laurent Blanc and “beur” like Zinedine Zidane!
We were proud of our national French team as they won the World Cup in 1998 for the first time in their history. The whole French nation was flogging its flag and dancing in the streets. Suddenly we seemed to care about soccer. Right-extremist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen could always pretend that the team did not look very French! We loved that team that did not look like any of our European enemies! We despised the comments of some foreign – especially German – journalists who jealously mocked our “African team”.
We were ahead of our time. We were portraying the perfect modern society and were the world champions of the post-assimilation discourse. A good occasion for us to stop all this fruitless and alarming talk about a weak integration of migrant communities and a faulty social lift.
Short jerk and severe defeat in 2002? So what? At that time we were still concentrating on the sportive performances and as a matter of fact they did not match the expectations that year. No regrets! With our hearts beating in concert we were strong! That is what we thought at least…
But our fragile equilibrium was already shaking. 2006 brought us the first uncertainties. We were not sure what this was all about any more. Sportive competences? Cultural differences? Religious sensibilities? Social fracture? A headbutt that became subject to worldwide press coverage.
Our faith was failing. In November 2006 it was the turn of the socialist politician George Frêche to feel sorry that there were “nine blacks out of eleven” in the French team. Somehow the idea might have slightly crossed our mind… But, no, come on! We aren’t racist for Goodness sake!
2010 definitely buried the last impetus. The dream was over. We will not spread gossip; nor analyze who said what and why. We will not be involved in any controversy regarding the possible whims of apparently overpaid players. We are above such discussions. But we feel that something is broken.
For a country that was never really keen on soccer, this sounds something of a paradox. In fact the recent defeat suddenly reminded us that we actually do not like soccer that much in France. Indeed we were never really very interested in it. Ok, let us really admit it. We simply do not care about it! We do not give a s**t about grown men running after a ball for 90 minutes! And anyway we do not understand anything about it! At school we were always bad and the teacher used to put us in the goal in order to avoid the catastrophe on the field. Or so it is said!
And here they come again, politicians, journalists and so-called experts, with opinions, values and identity-clash between communities. Some even talk about anti-white racism. The tribes of the “banlieues”. Players coming from the “banlieues” supporting one another and building gangs within the team. According to the junior sports minister Rama Yade, the French players should not be allowed to refuse singing the national anthem ‘La Marseillaise”. Let us here just remind of its “beautiful” verse: “May an impure blood/Water our furrows!“…
French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who already spoke of a “black black black” team in an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz in 2005, described the team as “a bunch of delinquents that only know one morale, the one of the mafia”. Just before the defeat of the French team which eliminated them from the World Cup, he further declared on the radio channels Europe 1 and France Inter that the French team suffers from “ethnic” and “religious division”.
Even the players seem to add another layer. In an interview published in the daily sports newspaper L’Equipe, the sports journalist Vincent Duluc asked the player Sidney Govou whether cultural-differences built clans within the team. Govou answered: “In everyday life as well as in the French team, one looks for affinities. And when looking for affinities, the color is the first thing that comes to mind”.
Surprisingly journalists outside of France seem more worried about the discourse than their French counterparts (though some French professionals denounced this as well). French-speaking former African colonies usually tend to support the French team. The Burkina Faso daily newspaper L’Observateur Paalga is worried that such a state of affairs would encourage the right-extremists: “Do these players not give right to the leader of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who said some years ago that the national team did not reflect France?”.
And the Senegalese daily newspaper Kotch continues: “Already the “quick-tempered” nationalists start to take out the microscope to show that this is the perfect illustration of a France divided in two. On the one side, the white Gourcuff, raised in the severity and sense of sacrifice… and on the other side Anelka, the scum… who does not know any subordination to authority”.
How can we refer to the (failed?) integration of migrants in our country through the (bad) behavior and the (poor) results of a soccer team?
Our national team did not play the game to keep on making us idealize our society and our life. Their failure is our own failure. We do not dream any longer. We are simply, boringly, sadly, coldly, violently French. And here we are again: we still do not know what it means but we keep on asking ourselves the question. We seem so possessed with the matter that the French Minister for Immigration Eric Besson even carried out a kind of national survey, which finished early this year, about the definition of the French identity.
What really disturbed us is actually our own country, its chimerical search for an unconvincing identity. With a winning team we thought we had found an identity fallback. After 1998 and for a couple of years, we had found a catharsis through soccer, but now we must continue our way without it.
For the Irish Times, France is plunged into a bout of national self-flagellation. So, really, how could the French national team do this to us? We really did not deserve this! How did they dare? We were not cheering up then but at least we had peace, isn’t it? We will never forgive them for winning in 1998!
# In case any Frenchman or woman (or any other by the way) should feel upset or personally attacked by the column: All apologies! Please feel free to write back 😉