OPINION: Rows over Benzema and the French football anthem show race is still the key issue for Marine Le Pen

Whatever she may say, the new rows over the make up of France's football squad for the Euro2020 tournament and the choice of the team's anthem prove race is still a core issue and principal political platform for presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Rows over Benzema and the French football anthem show race is still the key issue for Marine Le Pen
France's multi-racial football squad are among the favourites to win this summer's tournament. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP

In my excessively long career as a journalist, I have rarely been a sports reporter. I did, however, cover a handful of minor matches during the 1998 football World Cup, which was hosted by France and won deservedly by the host country.

Apart from my amateurish attempts at live football reporting that summer – Jamaica v Croatia; Iran v the United States – I wrote much political analysis on the “brown, white, black” French team which beat Brazil 3-0 in the final.

Two years earlier the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen had mocked a similarly multi-racial, French team as an “artificial” bunch of foreigners “baptised France.” They ought, he said, to be “called something else”.

Would the success of Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly,  Didier Deschamps and others shut up Le Pen, I and others wondered in 1998? Would they help brown and black kids in the inner suburbs to feel more French? Would they give white kids in richer suburbs or in the countryside role models from within France’s migrant communities?

An answer to the first question came four years later when Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election. An answer to the second question came  another three years down the road when the multi-racial banlieues exploded into weeks of rioting following the death of two teenage boys in a police chase.

It is now 23 years since the “blanc-noir-brun” triumph at the Stade de France. What do we find?

Another multi-racial squad of wonderful French footballers are joint favourites (with England) to win the European championship next month (delayed from last summer but still called Euro2020).

Another Le Pen is appealing to racial instincts and fears to stir up trouble.

Marine Le Pen is, in some respects, cleverer than her papa. She does not openly suggest that only white footballers have the right to wear the blue jersey of France. She, and her acolytes, seize on more complicated issues on which to manipulate racial fears and resentments.

Rapper Youssoupha has written the French Euro 2020 anthem. Photo by XAVIER LEOTY / AFP

First issue: an African-born rapper, Youssoupha, has written the official battle hymn for the France team and their fans.

Second issue: one of the most talented French footballers of his generation, Karim Benzema, born in Lyon of Algerian parents, will return after six years of exile from Les Bleus to lead the France forward line (as we used to say in the 1960s) in Euro 2020.

Neither case is straightforward. In both cases legitimate questions can be asked about the decisions taken by the French football authorities. In both cases, the motives of Le Pen and her party are political and racist rather than legitimate or sporting.  

Youssoupha wrote some rap lyrics 14 years ago which seemed to threaten sexual violence against Madame Le Pen. None of his more recent work is violent in tone or content.

His anthem for Euro2020, “Ecris mon nom en Bleu”  (write my name in blue“) is an appeal for national unity in support of a team which comes from “des campagnes et des quartiers”  (the countryside and suburban housing estates). The squad of 26 represents, the song suggests,  a “better blend” because it includes a “taste of elsewhere and a taste of France”.

Karim Benzema faces trial in October for his alleged part in an attempt by people that he knew to blackmail a France team-mate with a sex-tape in 2015. He says his actions and motives have been misinterpreted. His behaviour was, at the least, stupid and clumsy.

Why bring him back now, just before the trial? Official Answer: Benzema has been exiled for long enough. Unofficial answer: France has no other prolific goal-scorer.

Some of the Lepennist attacks on Youssoupha’s anthem – including a tweet by Marine Le Pen herself – concentrate on his verbal violence against her in 2007. Others focus on the fact that a rap song was chosen at all and the offensive – to some – words “blend” and “taste of elsewhere”.

The number two in the Rassemblement National, Jordan Bardella, said the anthem represented a “surrender to the scum part of France.” The word he used – racaille – was used by former President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005 to describe violent, multi-racial gangs in suburban housing estates. It has become a code word for the far-right and hard-right in France for all people of African or North African origin.

The far-right attacks on the return of Benzema have been led by a Rassemblement National senator, Stéphane Ravier. He ignored the approaching trial and complained that Benzema was a “paper Frenchman” who regarded himself as an Algerian.

This accusation – common in the “fachosphère” or constellation of francophone far-right web sites – is based on a distortion of comments made by Benzema in 2006. He said that his heart was partly Algerian and partly French but he had chosen to play for France and was “proud” to do so.

In sum…

There are legitimate questions about the decisions to select Youssoupha’s anthem and to bring Benzema back into the team. Personally, I think the choice of the anthem was  justified but the selection of Benzema was premature.

But the Lepennist attacks distort or ignore the legitimate questions. They are carefully slanted to raise – without seeming to do so – the same identitarian question raised by Le Pen père in 1996. Why is the France football team so full of black and brown people?

The squad in 2021, unlike the 1998 squad, is almost entirely composed of players born in France. One was born in Congo, another in Italy (while his father was playing for Juventus of Turin). Two were born in overseas parts of France. Twenty two were born in Metropolitan France.

Nine are white; fifteen are at least partly of African or French-Caribbean origin; two have North African roots.

It is a miserable truth – which I know from my own experience – that many French people feel uncomfortable with what they regard as an unbalanced racial composition of the squad and the team. By no means all of those people vote for Le Pen.

Equally, many young people in the multi-racial suburbs have a schizophrenic attitude to the French national football team. They celebrate its successes; they like the fact that they can recognise themselves in the squad; but they frequently also support the national team of their country of sometimes distant origin.

The choice of Youssapha’s anthem was meant to address and calm these tensions. The reaction of Le Pen and her minions was an attempt to inflame and exploit them.

Whatever she may say, race is still a core issue and principal political platform for Marine Le Pen.

Member comments

  1. Nothing would inspire me more to get behind the French team than the odious Le Pen spreading her waste products around.

  2. Liked the article very much, thank you. I love it when The Local carries this sort of social analysis articles. Just one piece of perhaps pedantic but to me important correction: the French nickname of the 98 team was Black Blanc Beur (beur being 2/3 generation N African immigrant)

  3. Is a black rapper the best French artist they could find to produce the team song? A rapper that is a hood and that has made threats to people. I think that I have to agree with Le Pen.

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Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

The final composition of the new French government was announced on Friday. A new investigation suggests that historic rape allegations against a newly appointed minister were ignored.

Newly appointed French Minister faces rape allegations

It didn’t take long for scandal to hit the France’s new government.

An investigation by Mediapart published the day after the final list of ministerial positions was announced revealed that two women have accused one of the appointees of rape. 

READ MORE Who’s who in France’s new government?

Damien Abad, the new Solidarity Minister denies the allegations and a police investigation into one allegation was dropped in 2017. But another could be about to open. 

Who is Damien Abad? 

Damien Abad is a 42-year-old son of a miner from Nimes in southern France who became the first handicapped MP to be elected in 2012. He has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints.

Prior to his appointment as the Minister for Solidarity, Autonomy and Disabled People, he was the leader of the France’s right-wing Republicans party in the Assemblée nationale

What are the allegations? 

Two alleged victims, who didn’t know each other, told Mediapart that Abad raped them on separate occasions in 2010 and 2011.

The first woman described meeting Abad for dinner after having met him weeks earlier at a wedding. She said she blacked out after one glass of champagne and woke up in her underwear in a hotel bed with Abad the next morning fearing she had been drugged. 

A second woman who lodged a formal charge against Abad in 2017 said that he harassed her by text message for years. She eventually agreed to meet with him one evening. After initially consenting, she told him to stop – but her plea fell on deaf ears as Abad raped her. 

What does Abad have to say? 

The new minister denies the accusations.

“It is physically impossible for me to commit the acts described,” he told Mediapart – in reference to his disability. 

He admitted to sending “sometimes intimate” messages, but said he had “obviously never drugged anyone”. 

“I was able to have adventures, I stand by my claim that they were always consensual.”

Is he under investigation? 

The second alleged victim made a formal allegation against Abad in 2017. 

A subsequent investigation was dropped later that year after a “lack of sufficient evidence was gathered”.

Mediapart report that Abad’s entourage were not questioned by police and that the MP told investigators that he had no memory of the alleged crime. 

The first alleged victim flagged the abuse to the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics – an unofficial watchdog monitoring elected bodies – earlier this month. 

The Observatory has since brought the case to the state prosecutor, but it is unclear if another investigation will be launched.  

Who knew? 

The tone deaf appointment of Gérald Darmanin as Interior Minister in 2020 was controversial because at the time he was under investigation for rape. His nomination was met with street protests in Paris and elsewhere. Feminists accused (and continue to accuse) Emmanuel Macron of not taking sexual violence seriously. 

The investigation into Darmanin’s alleged crime has since been dropped.

Some will question whether the naming of Abad shows that lessons have not been learned. 

“Once again a minister  in the government of Emmanuel Macron accused of rape,” said Caroline De Haas, the founder of the #NousToutes feminist movement. 

The Observatory sent a message warning senior party figures in the Republicans and LREM about the allegations on Monday – prior to Abad’s nomination. 

France’s new Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne denied having any knowledge of the warning. 

“I am going to be very clear on all these questions of harassment and sexual violence, there will be no impunity,” she said during a visit to Calvados. 

“If there are new elements, if the courts are summoned, we will accept the consequences.” 

READ MORE Who is Élisabeth Borne, France’s new PM?

The Observatory meanwhile claims it has been ignored. 

“Despite our alerts, Damien Abad who is accused of rape has been named in government. Thoughts and support to the victims,” it tweeted