Featured image: Liberty leading the People; Eugène Delacroix, 1830. (This image is now in public domain)
France’s colonial history stretches back centuries. At its peak in the early 20th century, the French empire was comprised of large swathes of the continent of Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. However, after the Second World War, its grip on its colonial “jewels” weakened significantly. Struck early by defeat in French Indochina which led to the independence of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1950s, the unraveling of the French empire would be left to Algeria – the diamond among the proverbial jewels.
Defeat in the almost decade long war in Algeria rung the death knell of the French colonial empire. After then-President Charles de Gaulle finally signed the Evian Accords in 1962 and recognized Algeria as an independent state, several of France’s other colonies in Africa declared theirs too.
Throughout its history, many of its colonial subjects migrated and settled in France. During the wars of independence, France witnessed a mass exodus of thousands of French loyalists from its colonists.
The term ‘black, blanc, beur’ is a deeply symbolic one in France. A play on the French tricolour – the ‘bleu, blanc, rouge’ – the colloquial phrase appropriates the complexion of the skin of the citizens of France as the colours of the flag. Using “verlan” (an argot in the French language, featuring inversion of syllables in a word) the word ‘beur’ is a re-working of the word ‘arabe’ used to describe those of North-African descent. As France welcomed the world and played host to the 1998 FIFA World Cup, the coinage took on a whole new meaning.
Captained by Didier Deschamps, France’s 1998 World Cup squad championed the nation’s ethnic and racial diversity through a squad of sublimely talented players with ancestral paths tracing back to many different parts of Africa and Europe.
The elegant Zinedine Zidane – the player of the tournament – grew up the son of poor Algerian migrants who fled the country before the war with France. Striker David Trezeguet spent the best part of his childhood living in Argentina after being born in France to Argentine parents. Christian Karembeu was born in New Caledonia. Youri Djorkaeff was the son of Polish-Armenian parents. Patrick Vieira was born in Senegal and takes his Portuguese surname from his mother who was born in Cape Verde. Bernard Lama was born in French Guiana and lived there until moving to France at 18 to start a footballing career.
The sublime talents of Zidane, Vieira, Deschamps, Desailly and Lillian Thuram ensured a successful tournament for the hosts. Les Bleus beat South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Denmark, Paraguay, Italy, Croatia and finally favourites Brazil to lift the World Cup trophy – an event marked by the biggest street-parade in the history of France.
French manager Aime Jacquet called it a ‘national communion’. Over one million people lined the Champs-Elysées in euphoric celebration singing ‘La Marseillaise’ triumphantly. In an extremely tense political climate such as the one fostered by the then-French President Jacques Chirac, this was no mean feat.
Chirac, a devout conservative, once famously complained about le bruit et l’odeur – the sound and the smell – of African and Arab neighbourhoods, in which some of the members of the 1998 World Cup team and millions of French people grew up.
While becoming increasingly diverse French football has had its ongoing struggles with racism. In 2011, a massive story emerged accusing France manager Laurent Blanc of racism for comments about youth player training in France. Blanc claimed that “bigger” and “more powerful” players are given opportunities at youth level over more intelligent players and that the overwhelming majority of these stronger kids were of African descent thereby not only implying that the Caucasian white footballers were losing out to blacks even though they deserved a place but also that players from an African or Arabic descent had strength but were not as intelligent as a white footballer. This incident also stoked the flames of a minority of French supporters still incensed by the 2010 World Cup mutiny that they claim was led by players of African lineage.
Moreover, according to a leak, Blanc and the French Football Federation, in order to prevent what they saw as a trend of many migrants to play for France at the youth level before opting to play for their country of origin later, had plans to put in place a quota so that no more than 30% of players signed to French academies could hold country’s passport and could represent a country other than France.
With a new batch of footballers, the stigma surrounding French ethnic influence is starting to diminish once again. The likes of Kingsley Coman, Anthony Martial, Thomas Lemar, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, Dimitri Payet, Samuel Umtiti and Kylian Mbappe are just a handful of the players inspiring ethnic diversity in French football at present.
During Euro 2016, the French people finally seemed to have a national team that they felt truly represented them and the support for the side was immeasurable. In Paris, in the build-up to both the semi-final against arch-rivals Germany and the final against Portugal, there was a distinct sensation of unity and purpose about the Les Bleus. The fan zone under the Eiffel Tower had to be closed off over an hour before the final was played. In the streets after the semi-final victory against Germany – people from various ethnicities and backgrounds danced, sung, and hugged – all with a little French flag painted on each cheek.
Even in the wake of defeat, there was pride. Scapegoats were not made and fingers were not pointed – a rare thing for the French national team over the years. Instead, at present, there seems to be genuine excitement about the future of football in France and the roles that players with diverse ethnic background can play in the system.
However, the new leader of the French far-right, Marine Le Pen and her National Front are undermining the reconciliation of the ‘ethnic’ French people and their immigrant brethren. Indulging in the “other”-ing of Muslims and other minority communities, the National Front runs on what they deem is a secularist agenda.
The French people are inherently proud of their traditions and capitalizing on the widespread discontent regarding President Hollande’s government, the National Front have built a strong platform from which to challenge in the 2017 French presidential elections, arguing that French values are being trampled on by “outsiders”. This has the power to undo the sense of unification that football has brought to the country in 2016.
While Le Pen’s party claims to represent the true interests of the French people, the diversity of the current French national team arguably reflects the true demographic of the country more accurately – multicultural and diverse, both racially and religiously.