Euro 2016: France Looks to Its Football Team for More Than Sporting Glory

If sport can really heal the wounds left by the rough actions of economic policy, racial hate and terrorism, then the French national side has a heavy cross to bear over the next month.

Stade de France, 2009. Credit: ranopamas/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Stade de France, 2009. Credit: ranopamas/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

“Today, there are people who do not like the France team… [but] we are not here to be [universally loved].”

A week before the start of the UEFA European Championship 2016 tournament, French national team manager Didier Deschamps had those curious words to say. Often, ahead of a major football competition, a head coach of a national side seeks to unify the country. A feeling of patriotism seemingly pervades the nation that everyone associated with the host team seeks to exploit.

But Deschamps chose to leave some behind. It was not an easy decision but he is not in the job to make simple choices. It is not 1998, when he led the French side to World Cup glory. The ideal of ‘Black – Blanc – Beur’ had been realised back then. Or so it seemed. Black, white and Arab-origin footballers played in harmony to give France its proudest moment in international football. The fact that the French team was the most ethnically diverse side at the 1998 World Cup was not lost on anyone.

On the night France defeated Brazil in the final, Zinedine Zidane’s image was superimposed on the Arc D’Triomphe. He was the undisputed hero of the triumph, an Algerian-origin footballer who dazzled the world with his superlative skills and vision. It was not just the World Cup win that was celebrated but the values of multiculturalism too. Within and outside France, the victory was welcomed as a prime example of cultural and ethnic integration.

If anything, it was a surprise that it took the French so long to laud the virtues of their multicultural football team. The first African-origin player to play for France, Raoul Diagne, had debuted in 1931. Since then, the French national side continued to have a significant number of foreign-origin players in their team. In fact, some of the greatest players were not of French origin. Zidane, to name one. Just Fontaine, who holds the record for most goals in one FIFA World Cup tournament, was another; he was born in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Therefore when Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right Front National called the French team “artificial” during Euro ’96 on account of its multi-ethnic character, it was an attempt to distort history. Such debates had been part of French football and society since the 1950s but Le Pen added an element of virulence to the discourse. He even promised to investigate the status of foreign-origin footballers if he became president, suggesting that they had acquired citizenship so that they could play international football.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The likes of Zidane and semifinal goal-scorer Lilian Thuram would have found it easier to play for countries of their origin if they wished as France was a much stronger side on the international stage. The subsequent condemnation of Le Pen’s comments and France’s victory ensured he was not taken too seriously at the time.

But as France prepares to host the Euro tournament that begins tonight, have attitudes begun to change toward the national side? Deschamps’s pre-tournament comments were in response to the charges of racism laid at his door by striker Karim Benzema and former star Eric Cantona.

It was claimed, without much justification, that the French team manager was prejudiced against players of Maghreb (north African) origin. Benzema had been left out after his involvement in a sex-tape blackmail plot came to light, which targeted fellow teammate Mathieu Valbuena. His on-field exploits could not mitigate his complicity in a scandal that shook the team – a team that the French public have found difficult to love in the past few years.

It all started at the 2010 World Cup, when the national side’s players refused to train under coach Raymond Domenech when he sent striker Nicolas Anelka back home after a fallout. The intransigence of the footballers painted them in poor light as France crashed out in the group stage. The then sports minister Roselyn Bachelot, in a statement that would haunt the French side in the following years, questioned the players’ attitude. “How would you like people to remember you? What image do you want to leave behind?”

People did not remember them well. The French team’s image was not helped after another dressing room bust-up at the 2012 Euro. The footballers came to be seen as overpaid brats who could not be trusted to control their behaviour. The disenchantment with the national side was fanned further by pointing to its multi-racial and ethnic character. The distrust of blacks and Arabs within the society was carried over to the football team.

The French national team is responsible to the whole of France. Even to those who do not like it.

This should not have come as a surprise. At the time the French side set about tarnishing its own reputation, the far-right Front National party started to gain greater acceptability among the country’s voters. Led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the political outfit pounced on the growing disenchantment within a society that suffered from a high rate of unemployment and growing fear of terrorism.

Those fears came true last November when Paris was hit by a series of suicide bombings and mass shooting. The terror attack shook the city’s foundations; one of them being the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. As France battled world champions Germany in a friendly match, three explosions around the stadium caught everyone unawares. President Francois Hollande was still inside the stadium when the second of the three bombs went off. It was a strange scene as defender Patrice Evra passed the ball; his small act amplified in meaning by the sound of the explosion that filled the air.

Saint-Denis will be the venue for the tournament’s opening game tonight when France plays Romania. It will also host the final in a month’s time. Just like it did, in 1998, when the dream of multiculturalism thrived in French society. When, as Le Monde observed after France’s historic win, “the dominant discourse of unemployment, economic crisis and tension” was put behind.

France now faces similar tensions as industrial strikes have led to the collapse of public services in cities like Paris, Marseille and Saint-Etienne. The government’s move to push diluted reforms to labour laws without holding a vote in the parliament has created a scenario which could see the resistance affecting the conduct of Euro 2016. It’s not just the overpaid French footballers who can strike.

Marine Le Pen’s rise in last year’s regional elections just over a fortnight after the Paris attacks left many worried. The Front National earned seven million votes, its best-ever electoral performance. Despite the vile, racist statements that emanated from the party’s leader and her followers on a frequent basis, the politics of fear was able to make gains. The party’s march was stalled only after the socialists engaged in tactical voting to allow Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right party to gain some regions at their expense in the second round of elections.

It is within this climate that France will begin their Euros campaign. If the team fails to match the lofty expectations that surround it, expect more racially-charged comments to be directed toward the black and Arab-origin footballers who form the core of the side. Marine Le Pen, as a pro-jihadi recruiter Omar Diaby once remarked, apparently has France’s best interests at heart. “OK, she’s a woman, and one can call her a racist. But at least she defends the true values of France,” he had told Le Monde. Not sure many in France would agree, especially the footballers.

Led by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, the team has undergone a considerable image makeover in spite of what its detractors say. The current team’s youthful exuberance could attract the French public that is still hesitant to shower its appreciation and love upon the side. Their hands have been burnt before. But in the likes of Paul Pogba, who was recognised as the best young player at the World Cup two years ago, the team has young leaders who could guide the team to European glory.

The French public, one reckons, requires exactly that. Still reeling from the terrorist attacks last year and the economic problems of the day, the national team can offer temporary relief. Of course, the lesson needs to be learnt from 1998. Back then, when France became world champions, there was an immediate assumption that the victory signified that the French society was a model for successful integration. Incidents in the last 18 years have proven that was a leap too far but as one of the society’s few truly multicultural institutions, the French national team can prove to be a veritable source of hope.

History provides another stream of optimism. France has won both major football tournaments it hosted, Euro in 1984 and the 1998 World Cup. The realistic possibility of a historic treble should engineer positivity around the French side over the next month. It will not be the first time that football would offer relief to a troubled French population.

Before the commercialisation of French football, most amateur clubs ran programmes to rescue the young from the menace of drug addiction. As the public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu noted, the French Third Republic had used physical education in the shadow of social service too. Even today this idea, which is said to be derived from the Hegelian conception of the state, continues to inform the actions of French policymakers in sport.

If sport can really heal the wounds left by the rough actions of economic policy, racial hate and terrorism, then the French national side has a heavy cross to bear over the next month. The team may not seek to be unanimous but it is responsible to the whole of France. Even to those who do not like the team.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.