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LES ECHOS

Racism In French Soccer: Dissecting A National Scandal

Once the emblem of a harmonious and multicultural France, the French national soccer team is currently engulfed in a scandal that mirrors wider racism inside (and outside) the sport.

Success for Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants, once fed wider optimism about French multiculturalism. (Stefo)
Success for Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants, once fed wider optimism about French multiculturalism. (Stefo)
Pascal Blanchard and Yvan Gastaut

PARIS - A race-quota scandal gripping France's top soccer establishment began on April 28 when investigative French website Mediapart published controversial comments from the transcript of a November 8, 2010 meeting of some of the country's top soccer officials. The comments appear to call for 30 percent quotas capping young black and Arab players at top soccer academies.

A chain of events has ensued in recent days: attempts at explanation by national coach Laurent Blanc who was at the meeting, sanctions against an official of the French Football Federation (FFF), a thorough investigation by the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and public demands for Blanc's resignation.

(On Sunday, in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, Blanc's teammate on the 1998 World Cup champion national team, Zinédine Zidane – a French sporting legend who is of Algerian descent – defended the national coach from accusations of racism.)

Still, it seems that the national and multicultural pride that surrounded that 1998 team, known as "black-blanc-beur" (black, white, Arab) may be over for good. Yet is this really a surprise?

All the ingredients necessary for a major implosion were in the offing: a French national soccer body without anyone of African descent since the December resignation of Lilian Thuram, the media digging into the topic, and the reaction of a public obsessed by an imaginary connection between soccer and "national identity."

There is no disputing the historical weight of the July 12, 1998 victory, prolonged by the success of the 2000 European Championship. But its perfect antithesis was destined to occur at the 2010 World Cup, where France was eliminated in a shameful display of infighting, insubordination and awful performances on the pitch. The current affair is one of the more visible consequences of that fiasco.

Will the "multicultural" generation give way to an "all-white" generation?

Of course, except for the final phase of the 2006 World Cup, the spiral of catastrophic results is the driving force behind this failure. This debacle reveals losses and contradictions, all the while feeding an anxiety that adversely affects the French national mood.

But that's not all. After the comments of Jean-Marie Le Pen at the 1996 European Championships, and other personalities who stigmatized the team as "black, black, black," a standard racism began to seep into the sport concerning the ubiquity of "blacks' (in reality, "Muslims," as many point out) on the French national team.

Despite the progress of campaigns fighting racism, a fear of "an invasion" is voiced as if it's no big deal. Indeed, French soccer officials are completely in tune with current sentiment.

Like society at large, those who shape the destiny of French soccer prove themselves incapable of managing diversity. They remain deaf to the phenomena of multiple identities, a consequence of a colonial past and a still neglected history of immigration. Invisible within certain sectors of public life, "Blacks' and "second-generation Africans' are everywhere on the fields of sports, nearly the sole place of social success for many youth in our neighborhoods.

This reality is nothing new. Ever since its beginnings, soccer discovered individuals who were either immigrants or from colonies, thanks to the eyes of French scouts. These include Gusti Jordan, a naturalized Austrian, Larbi Ben Barek, nicknamed "The Black Pearl of Casablanca," and Michel Platini, a son of Italian immigrants and current president of UEFA, European soccer's governing board.

So many names preceded the generation of Zinédine Zidane and Lilian Thuram, the most popular and talented of Les Bleus national players to this day. Had there been quotas, how many would have made a mark on history? The last time quotas were enforced was in Algeria in the 1930s for the North African players on the colonial teams. Dual nationality exists today as a fruit of history!

If the choices left for the dual-nationals bother the leaders now, they should recall that, when it was convenient for French soccer, it was barely mentioned at all…and that simply the "best" played for France. In colonial times, we were more than happy to count on several Blacks, Arabs, and pied-noirsAlgerian-born French to make shine an otherwise pale French soccer team.

Convenient and soothing speeches of "All Blue, All United" do not help anyone deal with the difficulties. Far from being a racism-free bubble, soccer is proving to be a source of division, causing everyone to fall back to defending their own. For these gentlemen, a Black, an Arab, and an Asian are not real "French," even if they were born in France. If this frame of mind could "offend some sensibilities," it also reveals the long path left toward de-colonizing our imaginations. The foul is severe, gentlemen: Red Card!

photo - Stefo

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