To some observers, the French national team’s failure to advance in this year’s World Cup was nothing short of a juicy scandal with all the necessary components: in-fighting, expulsions, poor play, and an unfavorable coach. But beneath the entertainment-driven headlines, the team’s implosion shows just how explosive the country’s racial tensions have become.
In 1998, France’s World Cup championship team was hoisted up for all the world to see for its inclusion of Black, white and Arab players. For some, it seemed that their model of assimilating former African colonies into a united France was working.
But the youth-led uprisings of 2005 shattered any globally-held illusions of racial harmony in the country. For three weeks hundreds of Black and Brown youth rebelled in suburban ghettos on the outskirts of Paris. French activists said that the civil unrest was a result of a disenfranchised, largely Muslim immigrant communities who felt that the then Interior Minister and now President Nicholas Sarkozy alienated the young and poor with zero-tolerance anti-crime campaigns. The government-led efforts often required routine police checks into poor French Arab neighborhoods.
For many French fans, the defining image of the team’s 2006 World Cup was the expulsion of star player Zinedine Zidane for head butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi for reportedly taunting him with a racial slur.*
Four years later, the World Cup has provided another global stage to showcase the country’s deepening racial divides.
A recent New York Times article, reported that philosopher Alain Finkielkraut compared the 2010 French team to the Black and Brown youth who rebelled in 2005, calling them “a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia.”
Even some legislators have jumped on the bandwagon, calling the French team “scum,” “little troublemakers” and “guys with chickpeas in their heads instead of a brains.”
France does have a long history of providing relatively safe artistic spaces for Black Americans. Famously, singer Josephine Baker, activist Frederick Douglass, and writer James Baldwin took brief refuge in the country, and it was also home to the early 20th century Negritude movement. But then again most Black Americans were just visiting to gear up for the fight back home, and didn’t migrate to France in droves.
Those who did arrive, however, were mostly Muslim immigrants from North Africa, and the relationship between French colony and colonizer continues to play out on the field. Of the 23-man Algerian squad, 17 are French-born, and Nicolas Anelka, the player who was expelled from the French national team for reportedly insulting the head coach, is Muslim.
It may be time for France to let go of their flawed integration model and face its racially ruptured reality.
Photo: The France team, Getty Images/Clive Mason
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that talian defender Marco Materazzi taunted Zinedine Zidane with a racial slur during the 2006 World Cup. Zidane has said in interviews that the taunt was not racially motivated.