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France’s World Cup win can’t hide underlying tensions over race and class

The success of the multi-racial French national team that was hailed by jubilant fans of all ethnic backgrounds masks persistent underlying tensions in the country around race, identity and class argues academic Joseph Downing from the university of Aix-Marseille in an article for The Conversation.

France's World Cup win can't hide underlying tensions over race and class
Photo: AFP

The French football team has won the 2018 World Cup, 20 years after it triumphed on home soil in 1998. “Les Bleus”, as they’re called, are back in the nation’s good books, celebrated for their excellent performance in this year’s tournament, right through the 4-2 win over Croatia in the final. Out of the limelight and the glare of success in Russia 2018, however, a question continues to dog French football – the role of race and class in the selection of national players.

On the surface, this may seem strange with the attention given to the multicultural harmony of the 1998 World Cup-winning team. The straight-talking former captain of the French national team, Zinedine Zidane, recently said of his country’s 1998 win: “It was not about religion, the colour of your skin, we didn’t care about that, we were just together and enjoyed the moment.”

This echoed the sentiment of the times, that a multicultural team of united “black, blanc, beur” (black, white or Arab) players had united under the cause of the French national team to lift the World Cup for the first time. Triumph, on the football field, demonstrated that integration had been successful in France and anyone could reach the top of French society.





Zidane, the star of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team, was born to Berber Algerian parents. He grew up in Marseille’s infamous “La Castellane” estate, seen as one of the toughest estates in one of France’s toughest cities. Two decades later, Kylian Mbappé – a 19-year-old of Cameroonian and Algerian heritage – who grew up in the Bondy suburbs of Paris, is the star of the French team.

Some commentators have discussed the 2018 success of Les Bleus as a return to the joys of “black, blanc, beur” multicultural national celebration, acceptance and celebration of ethnic diversity. Yet others have been critical of the way politics, integration and football have been mixed together again.

Far-right opportunism

Zidane and Mbappé bookend a couple of decades where the ethnic make-up of the national team has come under fierce scrutiny, often taking worringly racist forms.

Questions about the French team’s ethnic credentials were present even before their 1998 victory against Brazil. The far-right leader of the Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen argued that some the team were “foreigners” who didn’t know how to sing the national anthem. When Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential election in 2002, some of the world cup-winning footballers, including the captain, Marcel Desailly, campaigned hard against him.

In 2010, the French team crashed out of the World Cup in South Africa at the group stage, winning no games. Behind the scenes, the manager Raymond Domenech had terrible relations with the players, obscenities were screamed and the captain Patrice Evra had an on-field bust up with the fitness coach, Robert Duverne. Rather than question the incompetence of these two white coaches in managing the national side, blame fell quickly on the players, whose commitment to the French team was questioned.

The criticism went further than the usual rumblings about spoilt and overpaid players, taking on a distinctly sinister and racial tone when the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut called the team a “gang of thieves with mafia morals”. While this referred to the footballers by their presumed class backgrounds as children of France’s crime-ridden, suburban housing estates, some pointed to a racial undertone as these estates are also synonymous with black and Arab youths.

Marine Le Pen, the new leader of the FN party – since then renamed Rassemblement National – waded into the fray arguing that the problem with the national team was down to them having “another nationality in their hearts”.

In the years since, there have been other accusations that France operated a “quota” to limit the number of black and Arab players in the national team. In part, this was justified as a means to limit the number of bi-national players trained by the French youth team, who may choose to play for a country other than France. However, transcripts which formed part of an investigation found the rationale also extended to racial stereotypes that white players were more “cerebral” and “team orientated” than their “fast and strong” African and Arab counterparts.

Notable by his absence in this world cup is Karim Benzema, an international star with Real Madrid who has been continually left out of the squad, for what he has called “racist” reasons. Benzema was suspended from the national team in 2015 due to a criminal investigation into an alleged blackmail case – which remains ongoing – and he was again omitted from the 2018 squad. The official reason for his continued absence is “sporting choices”, but former French international Samir Nasri went on record in 2017 to say that the reason may have a more racist rationale.

Banlieue boys

The aftermath of the 2010 debacle demonstrated that even for those who do make it to the top of French football, when times are hard it is they who are viewed first and foremost with suspicion due to their minority ethnic and working class backgrounds from les banlieues(suburbs). These areas continue to have massive structural problems that disadvantage those of minority and low-income backgrounds.

In the 20 years since Zidane lifted the World Cup, little has changed in the estate outside of Marseille where he grew up. Like other estates in France that house significant numbers of those of foreign ethnic origin, La Castellane continues to be gripped by violence and the all-too lucrative drugs trade, which periodic raids do little to disrupt.

The achievements of 1998 and 2018 demonstrate that players such as Zidane and Mbappé from ethnic minority backgrounds can rise to the top of French society. Some players transcend football, taking up bigger political causes, such as the French 1998-world cup winning defender Lillian Thuram who has worked against discrimination in France. He even turned down a position in the government of Nicolas Sarkozy because of differences with the president over his stance on social issues and because Sarkozy called the rioters of 2005 “scum” when he was interior minister.

Yet while the current team is riding high on a wave of the resurrection of “black-blanc-beur” success, French football, like French society, remains marred by complex forms of racial discrimination.

This article first appeared in The Conversation. CLICK HERE to read the original and more articles from The Conversation.

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France plans to keep growing women’s game after World Cup disappointment

France faces the challenge of continuing to develop women's football after the bitter disappointment of elimination from the World Cup by the United States.

France plans to keep growing women's game after World Cup disappointment
France players after the defeat against USA. Photo: AFP

“Back to Earth” was how sports daily L'Equipe put it after the host nation lost 2-1 to the holders in a quarter-final played out before a feverish crowd in Paris.

L'Equipe talked of “the disappointment of a shattered adventure” because coach Corinne Diacre's team had dreamt of emulating the men, World Cup winners in Russia last year and also winners as hosts in 1998.

The team had been desperate to make it to Lyon, where the semi-finals and final will be played and where seven of those who featured for France on Friday play their club football for Europe's top side.

Instead, France find themselves out of a fifth straight major tournament in the quarter-finals. To rub salt into the wounds, Friday's defeat had the knock-on effect of denying them a place at next year's Olympics.

Diacre had been set the objective of reaching the final, which always looked a daunting challenge once the draw raised the likelihood of an early meeting with the USA.

Amid the dejection on Friday, Diacre stated her wish to continue, and on Saturday French Football Federation (FFF) President Noel Le Graet confirmed she would stay.

“She will be in charge until the end of her contract, if not longer,” Le Graet told AFP.

That means until Euro 2021 in England at least, and the aim in France is to keep developing the women's game to give them a chance of one day going all the way.

The FFF hope the number of registered female players will reach 200,000 next year, an increase of almost 10 percent from present figures, but far from the two million registered male players.

They have also promised to invest 15 million euros into a post-World Cup “legacy” fund.

The interest in the women's game is there, as shown by television audiences during the World Cup, with 11.8 million watching the USA game on terrestrial TV.

However, translating that to an increased following in the women's domestic league will be a bigger challenge.

France games have drawn sell-out crowds at the World Cup, but in general attendances in domestic competition are modest at best, even if almost 26,000 saw powerhouses Lyon beat closest rivals Paris Saint-Germain earlier this year.

“We cannot go from so much enthusiasm now to league matches on poor pitches with only 120 fans,” said Le Graet. “We all need to make an effort and we will.”

Matches are televised, but like elsewhere income remains light years from rights deals in the men's game — a new sponsorship contract for the 12-club top flight with chemicals company Arkema is worth one million euros per season for three years.

Average salaries are reportedly around 3,500 euros per month, although stars like Amandine Henry and Wendie Renard are believed to earn almost 10 times that at Lyon, who have won the Champions League in the last four years. Again, those sums are dwarfed by the wages often on offer to the men.

“We need to keep putting money in, keep professionalising, because other countries are doing it and maybe that's why they are ahead of us,” warned Lyon and France forward Eugenie Le Sommer.

“We have a good league but unfortunately not every team is professional.

“There are countries who are ahead of us and we must catch up. Even Spain are putting lots of money in and we need to make sure we are not left behind.”

READ ALSO: France coach laments 'failure' as hosts knocked out of World Cup