Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1402, (19 - 25 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Diversity wins

France’s victory in this year’s football World Cup repeats its similar victory 20 years ago and bears striking witness to a younger and more multicultural French nation, writes David Tresilian in Paris


Supporters wave French flags while they gather on the Champs-Elysées  Avenue  (photo: AFP)
Supporters wave French flags while they gather on the Champs-Elysées Avenue (photo: AFP)

Barely had the final whistle sounded at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday night after the French team’s four-two victory over Croatia in this year’s football World Cup final than delirious crowds descended into the streets in towns and cities across France to celebrate, with some one million people filling the Champs-Elysées Avenue in central Paris.

It was a demonstration of popular joy perhaps only paralleled by a similar demonstration in 1998 when a French team also won the football World Cup. It was repeated the following day when the victorious French team arrived back in Paris to be greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace and by the million fans who had once again turned out to celebrate the French victory and watch the victory parade that once again filled the Champs-Elysées.

Cleaning crews out in force on the Champs-Elysées and surrounding areas to clear up after Sunday’s night of partying reappeared on Tuesday after the tumultuous welcome the team received on Monday night after their arrival back from Moscow. An enormous clean-up job was taking place on the Champ de Mars, the green space around the Eiffel Tower which over the weekend hosted delirious crowds watching the World Cup final on enormous screens and the many more who joined them after the French team’s victory.

Commentators have been comparing this week’s scenes to those that took place in 1998 when a French team made up of players of different origins won the World Cup and led to celebrations of a multicultural France made up of communities of different racial backgrounds. Something similar has also been happening this time round, with the victory celebrations being perhaps even more extensive than they were in 1998 and even more heartfelt.

However, for some commentators France today may be in a different mood than it was in 1998 and it may perhaps be more prudent. Some of the predictions made in 1998 that the football victory would lead to a less-divided country were not borne out by subsequent events, among them the entry of the far-right Front National to mainstream politics, with its candidates contesting the second rounds of both the 2002 and 2017 French presidential elections.

France saw the worst rioting in decades in 2005 when areas of the deprived suburbs that ring many of its larger cities went up in flames in protests that were interpreted as being related in part to racism in the police.

In 2015, Islamist terrorists carried out the first of a series of attacks in France, raising fears about the rising influence of extremist ideas among some French young people. These attacks, on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, were followed by further attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and French national stadium in 2016 leading to a long period of national traumatism.

Like in 1998, this year’s World Cup victory is being interpreted in sociological terms, with many pointing to what it may mean for French identity and the talent and energy of its young people from a variety of social backgrounds.

It was this that the French newspaper Le Monde pointed to in its editorial on the football victory on Tuesday, saying that the celebrations had seen an entire people “putting its quarrels and its divisions to one side for a moment and focusing instead on a dream in blue,” a reference to the blue colours worn by the French National Football Team.

“This moment is all the more precious in that it gathers together the diversity of a country traumatised by the successive attacks carried out on its soil since the attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2015,” the paper said. The national football team, made up of players of many different origins, showed that “the sense of national belonging goes hand-in-hand with many different histories and different backgrounds.”

While captain of the French team Hugo Lloris is the son of a Monaco lawyer whose background may not say much about social mobility in France, one of the undoubted stars of the team, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe, comes from Bondy, a deprived suburb outside Paris close to the epicentre of the 2005 riots.

In the run-up to the World Cup victory the French media focused on Mbappe not only because of his footballing talent. The story of how a young man of mixed African and North African immigrant origin had managed to become a star of the national football team contained an important sociological message about contemporary France, it said, similar to the story of captain of the 1998 team Zinedine Zidane.

The latter, the son of Algerian immigrants to France, became a kind of icon of multiracial France in the aftermath of the 1998 victory along with teammates Marcel Desailly and Liliane Thuram, both of whom have remained in the public eye, Thuram for the foundation he has set up to combat racism in France.

This time round, commentators have similarly emphasised the message carried by Mbappe’s rise and the victory of a sociologically and racially mixed 2018 national football team. According to former minister of equality Azouz Begag writing in Le Monde last weekend, football in France offered “everyone the opportunity to identify with [French] history through the story of a particular player”.

Warming to his theme, football in France today “is a mark of identity [that] unites in one incredible single communion all the differences that make up a nation,” he added.

For sociologists Stéphane Beaud and Frédéric Rasera, also writing in Le Monde, French football for the millions of its fans was an act of “communion” with “a football team made up of a young and charismatic generation of players, most of them coming from the suburbs surrounding Paris.”

It was testimony to the “excellence” of French football training, they wrote, and an index of how sport could be used as a way of climbing the social ladder, otherwise still largely closed off to young people of immigrant backgrounds.

However, they also struck a note of caution by noting that the vast majority of the players in France’s 2018 national team do not play for French football teams, most having been poached by the larger salaries offered abroad, and it was too early to tell whether the sense of national union experienced in the wake of the 1998 victory would be felt for longer in 2018.

For Pap Ndiaye, a professor at the Institut des Sciences Politiques in Paris, writing in last weekend’s Le Monde, the great attraction of football for many young French people of immigrant background was that it “seems the only way of succeeding in life, since in football being black does not seem to be a problem.”

It was, he wrote, a field on which “the players could begin on a presumption of equality, eleven men versus eleven men in a football match, which contrasted with a society where everything seems to have been decided in advance” and not in the favour of first, second, or even third-generation immigrants.

This note of caution was repeated in an interview with Mbappe himself in last week’s Le Monde, in which he said that in football “nothing can guarantee that just because you are good you will succeed.” He added that “I have never heard anyone say when the French team wins a competition that ‘they won, but there are too many blacks in the team.’ It is when you lose that you become a problem; when you win you are seen as a success.”

One feature of the 2018 French team that earlier raised some comment was the comparative absence of players of Arab origin, unlike in 1998 when Zidane led the field. Nabil Fekir and Adil Rami, among the players in the team that play for French clubs outside the tournament, were both on the substitutes list, and the best-known French player of North African origin, Karim Benzema, was not selected after legal problems in 2015.

According to some in the French media, the exclusion of Benzema has been felt as insulting by some in France’s North African community, and a scan of social-media sites in France gives the same impression.

According to Beaud and Rasera, France’s 2018 World Cup success may not have led to quite the same feeling of national unity as the victory in 1998, because the French flags flying in 2018 express an “ordinary and everyday kind of nationalism” rather than the “aggressive nationalism of the National Front.”

“Just a few years after the 2015-2016 attacks… there is probably an element of collective therapy at work in such moments of collective emotion, being a way of making the fears of the past vanish and of wanting to believe in a common future despite all the geographical barriers and the barriers of social class,” they wrote.

It was a message underlined by Le Monde in its editorial on Tuesday, which said that “history has shown how fragile moments of national euphoria can be,” with the 1998 football victory ushering in the candidacy of Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 presidential elections.

“France will not change by waving a magic wand,” the newspaper said. “Social inequalities will not get better, and mass unemployment will not disappear… However, in a grim political and economic climate the victory of the French National Football Team can only help restore morale. It is a sign of confidence in the younger generations and a salutary expression of optimism.”

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