by: Laila Amine
Twenty years ago when France beat Brazil in the 1998 World Cup Final, I was among the fans running to the streets for an all-night celebration of les bleus. I hugged strangers and chanted the scores (“et 1 et 2 et 3 zéro!”) until my voice gave way. As a young French woman born to North African immigrants, I felt a rare and total communion with my compatriots. With players with parents from North and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the Caribbean, the national team represented a largely invisible France that was suddenly fêted by more than 1.5 million people on the Champs Elysées. However, back then as much as now, I could not ignore the reality of racial discrimination in France. Only months earlier a new policy requiring anonymous grading of student examinations – thus hiding my Muslim name – propelled me from the rank of struggling student to accomplished college matriculate.
The celebration of France’s 2018 victory and the controversy over popular night show host Trevor Noah referring to it as “African victory” has become a flashpoint for the question of race. In his missive, French Ambassador Gérard Araud admonished the comedian for his importation of race to a different context. “Unlike in the USA,” he lectured, “France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us, there is no hyphenated identity, roots are an individual reality.” Arnaud’s statement however could not be further from the truth: race is not an American import but a collective lived reality in France.
The fact that France does not account for racial and religious differences in its census does not mean that an estimated six million citizens who are racial minorities do not experience daily discrimination based on these social categories. A 2014 sociological experiment by Marie-Anne Valfort and colleagues showed that only 5% of Muslim male job candidates receive a call back, a number four times lower than Catholic men. The impoverished mass-housing outskirts (banlieues) – that produced the magic dribbling forward Kylian Mpappé as well as midfielders Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté – have an unemployment rate around 35% for young people, more than three times the national average. Investigating cases of police brutality, Amnesty International reported “a pattern of de facto impunity” with regard to law enforcement in France. Black Lives Matter there, too. Despite acute discrimination by race in education, lodging, employment, access to health, and interaction with the police, the Gallic mainstream public remains stubbornly attached to a delusional theory of universal equality. Whenever the question of collecting statistics on race emerges – data which could examine the extent of discrimination in most aspects of social life – France makes what demographer Patrick Simon calls “the choice of ignorance.”
Reference to race is often implicit. With the geographical segregation of populations of African descent to the impoverished suburbs where previous generations came to work in the 1950s and 1960s, spatial zones conjure race. In everyday speak, we call them “cités,” “banlieues,” “sensitive neighborhoods,” – words that refer to a racialized cartography to which media and politicians have added pejorative terms denoting crime and lawlessness (zones de non droit), unrest (émeute), uncivilizable hoodlums (caids, caillera, racaille), and Islamic fundamentalism (islamisation). We also call “Muslim” those we imagine to “look” Muslim (black and brown) whether these individuals practice Islam or not. Visually, it’s even easier to evoke race by summoning culinary items, hairstyles, or sartorial choices like the track suit, veil, or skull cap.
As Trevor Noah intimated, the French team is partly a product of France’s imperial history. Author Albert Memmi captures the uniqueness of this population presence in his statement that, “the Maghrebian is not a Russian or Romanian immigrant, a foreigner who has arrived here [France] by accident; he is the ‘bastard’ of the colonial adventure, a living reproach or permanent disappointment.” My father was part of this generation of men who came to France to work after World War II. Like many of his compatriots, he chose to go somewhere where he would find help, in his case, Brest, where his brother was already working in construction. To rebuild economically and increase its population, France turned to its colonies for cheap labor, facilitating entrance and family migration even after independence and until the early 1970s. Few settled in Brest, the majority chose Paris and France’s large cities where compatriots helped them secure lodging and work. In the capital, they occupied overcrowded and decrepit men-only dormitories sharing the same room and at times sleeping in rotation in the same bed. Others lived in the outskirts in closer proximities to factories, in slums like Nanterre and Gennevilliers deprived of paved roads and running water.
By the early 1970s, slums residents (largely immigrants and their children) transitioned to the low-income and cheap mass housing in the suburbs of Paris. A flashpoint for France’s so-called immigration problem, the banlieue is, in actuality, mainly home to French citizens with immigrant descendance. In proximity to factories and cut off from city centers, these administrative areas were hit the hardest by deindustrialization, leaving residents walled off from economic opportunities. The debilitating structural obstacles are often read through the lens of cultural alterity. While many minorities may feel French, we are seldom perceived as such. On top of discriminations made hard to prove, we get stuck with the perennial question: “where are you from?” and a slew of cultural projections about our work ethic, alleged faith, and taboos. Our skin color speaks for us and never fails to evoke our ancestors’ places of origin in the vast French empire. It’s tiring business to drag our interlocutors back to metropolitan France, to convince them we’re also Breton(ne) or Marseillais(e).
The realm of soccer is no different. When the French team wins, players are celebrated with the slogan “black, blanc, beur,” (black, white, Arab), a play on the tricolor flag (bleu, blanc, rouge). When the team underperforms, the media and political elite single out players of color to question their patriotism. For example, journalists ask Karim Benzema why he does not sing the national anthem. The team’s scandal at the 2010 World Cup showcases such differential treatment. Les bleus went on strike to protest Nicolas Anelka’s removal by the French Football Federation after he insulted the coach in the locker room. At the National Assembly, Roselyne Bachelot, Minister of Solidarities and Social Cohesion, referred to players of color as ‘immature banlieue criminals’ (caids) and distinguished them from white players she dubbed ‘timorous children’ (gamins apeurés). The next coach, Laurent Blanc replaced most players, distributed national anthem lyrics to the team and forbade halal buffets: changes that assumed the players’ deficient Frenchness. Blanc interestingly resigned after his leaked proposal that the Federation set quotas for ‘binational’ players and suggested differences between white and black players: the former cerebral, the latter stronger and faster.
Racial politics and soccer continuously interact. Just like Président Jacques Chirac who experienced a boost after the 1998 victory, Président Emmanuel Macron favorable opinion went up following the 2018 World Cup final. According to Sylvine Thomassin – the mayor of Bondy (Mbappé’s hometown) – the event even altered, if briefly, the view of the banlieues: “It’s marvelous, because so often people talk about the suburbs in negative terms.” In 2016, Paul Pogba who grew up in Roissy-en-Brie, a Paris banlieue, explained his extraordinary success as part of a complete lack of options in the milieu he was raised: “there is only soccer. Whether it’s at school or outside in the neighborhood, everyone will play soccer. … Every day it’s the ball. That’s all there is.” In his presidential campaign, Macron supported the assessment, calling life in the banlieue a sort of “house arrest” and vowed to invest solidly in its transformation. However, after a recent government-commissioned report recommended measures worth about $57 billion for said transformation, Macron changed his mind wanting to focus instead on personal responsibility, a “bottom-up” approach.
In a country obsessed with national identity, the recent image of the French president kissing the head of a banlieue-born player of Cameroonian and Algerian descent is a highly symbolic gesture of multiracial unity. But beyond the pictures, the slogans of multicultural France, or the rhetoric of a “new epoch” already touted in 1998, there is little by way of concrete attempts at economic integration. After the recent victory, Pogba told French radio, “Now there is no color, black, yellow, everything, we are all united. Now you are all proud of us. Forever.” His poignant words speak to a long hoped-for acceptance and the intimation that it may be short-lived.
Laila Amine, author of Postcolonial Paris: Fictions of Intimacy in the City of Light