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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OPINION: France has two presidents – one is confident, the other weak and directionless

France has two Emmanuel Macrons: one is strangely depressed and directionless, the other confident and clear, writes John Lichfield. But which one will emerge in his second term as president?

OPINION: France has two presidents - one is confident, the other weak and directionless

There is a global Emmanuel Macron, confident and clear; and then there is a domestic Emmanuel Macron, who sometimes appears petulant and indecisive.

Global Macron is admired by many people outside France for his eloquence and his intelligence. He is also mocked and feared by some people abroad (especially in the Brexit camp in Britain) for his alleged pretentiousness and arrogance (in other words for his eloquence and intelligence).

For Global Macron, it has been a good couple of weeks. 

His speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week was the best given by any world leader.

He placed the Ukraine war in a sweeping, global and historical context, lambasting allegedly “neutral” countries for failing to stand up for the core UN principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The “fake” non-aligned countries were, he said, betraying not just the values of the UN but their own interests.

Macron has also been word perfect in his tributes to the Queen.

He obtained little credit for that fact from the hardest-line,  professional Macron-haters in the UK media. They preferred to concentrate on the fact that he wore posh trainers during an informal visit last weekend to the enormous queues of people waiting to file past Her Majesty’s coffin in Westminster.

King Charles has, however, seized on this opportunity to improve relations between France and Britain which Liz Truss had ignored. After a dinner with Macron in London last Sunday, the new king is reliably reported to have decided that his first state visit next year should be to France.

So much for the global Macron.

The other Macron, the domestic president, is newly re-elected but strangely weak and directionless.

His popularity in opinion polls is fading. He seems unable to come to terms with his loss of his parliamentary majority in the legislative elections in June. He has yet to give a clear road-map for his second term to his newly renamed Renaissance party and their centrist allies.

(REMEMBER: You can listen to John Lichfield discuss the crisis on the French left and the mixed fortunes of Emmanuel Macron in the latest episode of our Talking France podcast below)

He has alternated in recent weeks between Blood, Sweat and Tears warnings to the French people that they face a cold and difficult winter and a generous (but reluctant) decision to extend domestic energy subsidies for another full year.

He has alarmed some of his own allies by raising the possibility that he might use his emergency constitutional powers to push pension reform through a divided National Assembly.

At the same time, he has pressed ahead with his vague plan for a grandiloquently-named Conseil national de la Refondation (National refoundation council). This body is supposed to find common ground between Left and Right, unions and bosses, to “refound” the French welfare state created just after the 1939-45 war.

On the one hand,  Macron says that he wants to find a new social consensus for the 21st century. On the other hand, he says that he wants to charge, without negotiation, into the social and political minefield of pension reform.

In a briefing with journalists earlier this month, the President suggested that he could avoid a lengthy negotiation with unions and the parliament to increase the standard French retirement age (now in theory 62). Changes in system could be tacked onto the annual social security budget next month and then pushed through the Assembly, in effect, by decree.

This week, the government back-pedalled. No decision has yet been taken, they say. One of Macron’s principal allies, the veteran centrist leader, François Bayrou, warned that any attempt to impose such a transformation on French lives by force would be a calamity.

How can we explain the two Macrons?

Partly, they reflect the constitutional powers given to French presidents. On international affairs and European affair, Macron can go largely his own way. On domestic policy, if he has no majority in parliament, his powers are limited.

I believe, however, that the problem runs deeper. There have been reports for months that Macron suffered after his re-election in April from a “drop in energy” or a period of depression.

The second half of his first term had been brutally occupied with non-stop management of the Covid and Ukraine crises. His attempts at mediating with Vladimir Putin had been a discouraging failure.

After his victory over Marine Le Pen, Macron drifted for weeks, delaying his decisions on a new Prime Minister and a new government. He was strangely absent from the parliamentary campaign in June (well below the limits imposed by his position as head of state).

Macron’s distraction contributed to his failure to win a new parliamentary majority; his lack of a majority has, I believe, compounded his mood of indecision and depression.

What to do with five years of a second term? Should he accept that his only role is now crisis-management? After all there are crises enough to manage.

Is the career of the self-proclaimed revolutionary of 2017 finished at the age of 44?  He cannot run again in 2027. He faces the prospect of five years of managerialism and drift while attention switches to his possible successors, from Edouard Philippe in the centre to Marine Le Pen on the Far Right.

“Macron is a magician who has lost his wand,” says one pro-Macron parliamentarian. “He’s still searching  for a way forward, a sense of direction. In short, he has the blues.”

By comparison with French politics, international crises are simple. Macron has clear ideas about the place of France and Europe in the world. He can express himself, both off the cuff and in set-piece speeches, with elegance and intelligence.

Macron has had no other position in elected politics than President of the Republic. He has no background as local or parliamentary politician. The prospect of five years of grinding negotiation to achieve quarter-baked reforms is, I believe, appalling to him.

Hence, his domestic zig-zagging.

He faces three choices in the next few months. He can accept a role as a manager of crises and minimal reforms; he can risk a Yellow Vest-type revolt by using, maybe abusing, his limited constitutional powers to impose change.

Or he can hope for an opportunity in the first half of next year to call a new parliamentary election.

Which way will he go? I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does Emmanuel Macron.