There is something utterly farcical about the social drama that accompanied the French national soccer team’s decided under-performance at the World Cup in South Africa — what American soccer journalists comically dubbed le meltdown and French media, the “fiasco” or “debacle.” A farce not simply because a team of prodigious talent failed to win a game or mark more than a single goal. Nor because of the circus of scandal surrounding the campaign: from revelations about players consorting with underage prostitutes; to the junior sports minister Rama Yade questioning the team’s expensive hotel while herself being scheduled to stay in one even more posh; to accusations that retired star Zinedine Zidane encouraged players to mutiny against lame-duck coach Raymond Domenech; to the halftime tirade launched against the latter by forward Nicolas Anelka and his subsequent dismissal from the squad; to the training strike led by captain Patrice Evra in solidarity with Anelka; to President Nicolas Sarkozy making the drama a matter of state by summoning veteran team member Thierry Henry to an emergency meeting with his ministers while France was in the midst of a labor strike. Nor does the farce merely lie in the subsequent scapegoating engaged in by the French media and public, alternately pointing the finger at an incompetent and arrogant Domenech, an unprofessional French Football Federation, or the millionaire players who were deemed to care more about their “bling-bling” than the national jersey. Much of this was arguably anticipated by a French spectating public with low expectations, little respect for the team’s management, and already inured to rifts between players and coaches. But even supporters came to revel in the sheer absurdity of it all.
But the drama also had a tragic dimension: the recurring racialization of the team — whose members hail largely from immigrant families and many of whom grew up in the same suburban housing projects (les cités) that have witnessed decades of high unemployment and civil unrest — as suspect Frenchmen. As Laurent Dubois has chronicled in his recent Soccer Empire, children of immigrants have sustained French national soccer teams since the invention of the world cup, and they have been the periodic focus of anxieties over national identity particularly during times of crisis. Beginning in 1996, extreme right Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen complained about the multiracial team not representing (his vision of) the French nation, about its Black and North African players not singing the national anthem. In a reversal of the image of the Black colonial soldier saluting the French flag famously discussed by Roland Barthes, media portrayals of the non-singing of the national hymn by French players of color presented a myth of France’s post-imperial disunity and an alibi for Le Pen’s proposed policies of immigration restrictions and “national preference.” Politicians and pundits have returned to this image during each subsequent international tournament, and they do so again today even as French institutions seek to represent the multiracial public and hesitantly adopt affirmative action policies.
Embodying the enduring, if shifting character of French racial discourse is “new philosopher” and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, a vocal critic of the “new anti-Semitism” and self-proclaimed defender of French cosmopolitanism. In November 2005, in the wake of the suburban “riots” and in anticipation of the 2006 World Cup, he gave an interview in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in which, like Le Pen, he attributed the violence to the “Islamic radicalization” and the “ethnoreligious character” of the housing projects. He further accused the national soccer team of being “Black-Black-Black,” as opposed to the “Blue-White-Red” of the national flag, or even the “Black-White-Beur [Arabe]” of French multiculturalism emblematized by the team under Zidane that won the 1998 World Cup. When Finkielkraut returned to these racially-charged themes in a June 20, 2010 radio interview with Europe 1 in the wake of Anelka’s dismissal, he further embraced the multiculturalism Le Pen deplored. Contrasting the team with the “Zidane generation” of 1998, he called it a “gangsta [caillera] generation” and a “gang of hooligans [voyous] whose only morality is that of the mafia,” thus deploying the same demeaning language as Sarkozy did in the midst of the 2005 violence while avoiding evident racism. Rather than signaling the ethnoracial unity of a new, multicultural France, the team offered a “terrible mirror” of a society divided by “clans,” “ethnic and religious divisions” and, above all, “arrogant and unintelligent” individuals.
Finkielkraut’s theme of social “disunion and decline (déliquesence)” marks a shift in the framing of the French nation and points to the poverty of a narrow racial analysis for making sense of French postcoloniality. More than ever, older Rousseauian concerns over social cohesion seem to be driving present iterations of the perennial question of “whither France.” The 2005 violence, the ongoing internal “war on terror,” and the recent economic crisis and labor unrest have signaled for many wide-scale national disunity and encouraged the mythologization of the 1998 victory as a utopian moment of multiracial harmony. The recent world cup “debacle” occurred just as Sarkozy made “national identity” a political priority and the focus of a new ministry, thus fostering a vociferous public debate over what constitutes the fundamental values of Frenchness. It likewise followed shortly after his successful campaign to bring the European soccer championship tournament to France, during which he claimed that sport would be France’s response to the global economic crisis, that it would re-unite society.
The French soccer players seemed to challenge this vision of social cohesion and national unity by simultaneously acting too individualist and too collectivist. On the one hand, for many observers, they seemed to behave as a set of “narcissists,” of over-paid “mercenaries,” of “immature caïds,” rather than as a unified, socially-aware “team.” They too easily recalled the immoral financial traders with their inflated bonuses, as French sports sociologist Christian Bromberger insightfully noted. On the other hand, they seemed to act too communally, as Finkielkraut’s “mafia.” Like for financial markets, what was being demanded of both the French team and the French nation was transparency. Sports journalists accused Domenech and the French Federation of running a closed shop. For all the talk of lack of team unity, the players were roundly criticized for not talking to the media, for maintaining a collective silence and for being more concerned about the “traitor” who informed the media of Anelka’s screed than the fact that he disrespected his coach. Their remaining in the team bus with the shades drawn during the training strike rather than exposing themselves on the practice field invoked decades-long political fears over the ethnic enclaving and cloistering of young women in the cités; their actions represented, in Finkielkraut’s words, the esprit des cités rather than the esprit de la Cité, of enlightened civilization. Pundits portrayed the players as having their “hats pulled down over their ears,” and the dismissed Anelka was photographed leaving the airport in a hoodie and dark sunglasses — images that recalled the very burqa that the Parliament was considering banning from public spaces. To be truly French, in other words, meant to be visible.
We should not be surprised that football calls forth national expectations and anxieties. That the World Cup comes to be politicized and racialized is indeed tragic; that this recurs again and again with lugubrious inevitability is surely nothing less than a farce. But to view this through the sole lens of postcolonial racial politics is to miss some of the broader dilemmas around social cohesion and a transparent public sphere that are of central concern today in a “post-racial” global France.
Paul A. Silverstein is an associate professor of anthropology at Reed College. He is the author of Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race and Nation (2004) and has previously written on French Islam and soccer in the pages of Social Text.
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