Ghetto defendants

If the French now have regular, public discussions about race, we have to thank black members of its men's national football team.

Lilian Thuram at a 2013 protest in Paris in support of same sex marriage (Wiki Commons).

So far, so-so: France’s journey to the World Cup was not without worry, and pre-World Cup friendlies were all but reassuring. France’s opening game against Australia was an assault on the nerves but ended in video-assisted victory. [The next game, a 1-0 victory over Peru, was equally unconvincing–Editor]. The best thing to come out of this may well be the fact that in the media Paul Pogba’s diary has replaced Antoine Griezmann’s unbelievably tone-deaf docudrama La Decisión, in which he wasted half an hour of our lives to announce that he would stay at Atlético Madrid. Team France lives under the sign of video: a sign of the times—constant contact has become a staple of modern sports culture and communication. Or lack thereof.

Indeed, it isn’t like Pogba had anything interesting to say in his diary. “Tough game;” “tough adversaries;” “we did what had to be done”: Pogba practices a 21st century athletic Esperanto designed to occupy the airwaves with more air, to occupy the news cycle without offending anyone. Team France’s studied dullness is manager Didier Deschamps’ trademark and it has been devised to avoid repeating the shit show that were the early 2010s. When Deschamps became France’s manager in 2012, he infamously declared “players can no longer make mistakes.” Mistakes like World Cup 2010, when France lost all three group games, decided to out-French itself by going on strike in the middle of the tournament, and eventually imploded following a locker room spat brought by French sports newspaper L’Equipe to the level of a national quarrel. The following years were equally laden with scandal: stories of locker room bullying between players, underage sex parties, sex tapes and blackmail all provided opportunities for every French politician and pundit to divine in every French player’s actions a diagnosis of the state of social relations in the Republic.

Deschamps demanded the end of public mistakes, in the process drawing the spotlight away from the institutional scandal that had shaken the tenure of Laurent Blanc, his predecessor at the head of the team: the 1998 World champion and former PSG coach was caught on tape in 2011 discussing with representatives of France’s football authorities the possibility of creating quotas in French football to limit the number of dual citizens; what he described as the prototypically “big, strong, powerful” players churned out by French academies: “What is there that is currently big, strong, powerful? The blacks. That’s the way it is. It’s a current fact. God knows that in the training centers and football schools there are loads of them,” he added. Blanc was eventually cleared of discriminatory practices, but the row was a symptom of the toxicity of French public discourse and habits in relation to football.

After 2010, politicians had demanded that heads roll, and the players singled out for public opprobrium—Evra, Ribéry, Nasri, Ménez, to name the most obvious—were systematically reduced by journalists and politicians alike to their social and racial background: these were banlieue kids, most of them of African descent, with dubious loyalty to France. These disrespectful thugs had taken over the French team—next step, the whole country. It wouldn’t be like we hadn’t been warned. Players were put on the stand, summoned to demonstrate that their existence was compatible with a vision of the team as the epitome of French virtues.

And so rather than treating the problems, Deschamps mostly cured the symptoms: no more mistakes, no more outbursts; no more denunciation of the intrinsic racism of French football authorities and organizations; no more public complaints about the manager’s choices, no more rejoinders to casual classism and racism. Deschamps’ team is squeaky clean; his players are polite and geniuses at what the French call langue de bois—wooden tongue: the political art of saying nothing well. Kylian Mbappé, France’s 19 year-old prodigy, thus regularly collects praise from all for being modest, confident, articulate. Oh yes. Articulate—the international term of endearment for respectable negroes. This is not a commentary on Mbappé, but rather on the evolution of media and political treatment of the French national team in France, and in order to better understand where we are now, it is    useful to look back even further to 2006. That year, France played against Italy in what was perhaps the most dramatic World Cup final ever. If the highlights will forever boil the game down to a Panenka, a headbutt and a missed penalty, there was much more at stake in the conclusion of France’s journey. The 1998 victory had made football a respectable topic of discussion for intellectuals and politicians alike; 2006 played a central role in the liberation and normalization of a racialized discourse until then mostly confined to the far-right gutters of French political life.


This is July 7th 2006. We made it. We’re in the final. Us, France, our Bleus, our boys, Team France. In the run up to the tournament, coach Raymond Domenech and his team faced harsh criticism for their unconvincing results: commentators from newsdesks to bar counters thought them too old, too slow, too blasé, too tired. Back in 2002 France was considered the best team in the world, and they went home in shame, having scored exactly no goal. The 2006 team, built around aging heroes of 98 like Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram, was washed up and would shame us worse. Like most people in 2006, I did not expect much from France. They struggled through the group stage to meet Spain, a young team among the favorites, in the round of 16. That game was perhaps the most iconic: Spain scored on a penalty kick, and Ribéry—then, ironically, France’s great white hope, rather than the semi-pariah he’s since become—scored his first ever goal for France in stunning fashion, dribbling his way around Casillas to go fly a plane around the stadium. Watch Patrick Vieira’s giddy stomp after scoring against Spain; watch Zidane’s cocky strut after the third goal, a master class taught to all of Spain’s press and to his own Real Madrid teammates. The two games after this one—the magnificent quarter-final against Brazil, the grueling semi-final against Portugal—felt like increasingly unavoidable va te faire foutre to all, a meeting with destiny. The 98 winners had also had to face hostility from the French press; but by 2006 football was politics. The shift from the sainted 1998 team to the once cursed and now redeemed 2006 team carried portents of France’s descent into the racial crisis it now shamelessly wallows in, ten years on.

What a difference victory makes: when World Cup 2006 started, when so few in France could imagine them coming out of the group stage, some let it all out. Leading the charge, “saying out loud what others think,” old fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen took it upon himself to officially announce our views on the matter: according to him, France are not only playing badly, they’re playing blackly, and we cannot possibly identify with this team, “maybe because the manager has exaggerated the proportion of colored players on the team.” Le Pen also took the opportunity to complain again about the players not singing the national anthem. We’ve heard this before, Le Pen having said similar things in 1998 and 2002. By 2006, though, what was once the oft ridiculed cause célèbre of the far-right drifted into mainstream political discourse.

What Le Pen was saying out loud, former liberal philosopher turned rabid conservative pundit Alain Finkielkraut was now also saying, though in the pages of Ha’aretz. “People say the French national team is admired by all because it is “black-blanc-beur” [“black-white-Arab” – a reference to the colors on France’s tricolor flag and a symbol of the multiculturalism of French society – D.M.]. Actually, the national team today is black-black-black, which arouses ridicule throughout Europe.” For Le Pen as for Finkielkraut, the incontrovertible blackness of the 2006 French team—more than half of the players, oh my—was the real problem. In the aftermath of his ugly comment, Finkielkraut was invited on every other French news outlet to explain himself. In interview after interview he shared variations of a cute little story. We’d all completely missed the context: “He [Finkielkraut’s father] would see the players on team France—Kissovski, Kopa, a.k.a. Kopachevski, Piantoni, etc.—and joke around: “are there any Frenchmen on this team?” By that he meant natives of France. It was an innocent joke, harmless laughter whose echo I tried to describe in this text [the Ha’aretz interview].” It was a joke the whole time, and really Haaretz’s fault for muddling his pristine thought. Finkielkraut’s anecdote does point to a known truth about France: the best national sides the country ever had to offer were always made of immigrants, sons of immigrants and Frenchmen of Caribbean descent. Finkielkraut named players from the 1958 France team, the first to reach a World Cup semi-final and numbering France’s first bona fida international football stars, including Real Madrid fixture Raymond Kopa. It featured the first international stars of French football: sons of Polish and Italian miners—Algerian stars Zitouni and Mekhloufi defiantly going AWOL the previous year to join the team put together by the Algerian National Liberation Front. The 1980s team, twice World Cup semi-finalists and European champions in 1984, featured the Martinican Gérard Janvion and the Guadeloupean Marius Trésor; Michel Platini, Bruno Bellone, Patrick Battiston, Jean-Marc Ferreri, all sons of Italian immigrants; Luis Fernandez and Manuel Amoros sons of Spaniards; Jean Tigana was born in Bamako, Mali, and José Touré’s father Bako had played for the Malian national team. When asked to comment on the kerfuffle in an interview for the French newspaper Libération, manager Raymond Domenech—himself the son of a Republican Loyalist from Catalonia who sought refuge in France after the Spanish Civil War—had this to say: “As a kid, I lived in what we would now call a bad neighborhood in Lyons. It had a loaded name: “the United States.” There was just one family of French origin there, just one. It was a permanent mix. No one was black there; that’s an expression I have never used. There were Congolese, Ivorians, Malians, yes, but no blacks. Others came from North Africa, or from Spain. So that’s how we played. We’d have our own little World Cups […].” No talk of race, then, but talk of places, the places parents came from and are still attached to, the sports loyalties that remain even after all, in a country that has drawn much of its manpower from European and African immigrants for a century and a half.

In France, as in most football-playing countries outside of the US, professional players tend to have more in common socially than they do racially: football is the social elevator and has been a narrow path out of the mines, the factories, the mills. Football develops particularly in industrial areas and banlieues because these are where the working class—whether native or immigrant—lives. Football is a quintessentially working class professional prospect: it is physical labor of a rare sort in that it appears to reward excellence exponentially. Competition is ruthless, the system is crass and exploitative, but it constitutes a social ladder more concrete and radical than the meritocratic fables bandied by our rulers and teachers. This is a truth as old as professional football, which tore the sport away from public school elites and put it into the feet of the working class. At some level, because anyone can and does judge on performance whether or not players ‘deserve’ their place in the sport’s elite, football seems a more honest organization than social hierarchy. The aristocrats of football earn their place there without exploiting anyone and only remain on top as long as they can maintain themselves there: though they can’t lament it out loud, this doesn’t sit well with them. Good thing they have racism to fall back on.

Neither Le Pen nor Finkielkraut had anything to say of any interest about class, economic or social inequality and hierarchies. All that mattered and still matters to them is cultural and racial difference, and opportunities to present it as the most urgent problem to face the country. Le Pen and Finkielkraut knew full well what has long been known in the US, and now become a commonplace of France’s toxic TV landscape and media sphere: you can get away with saying anything about race and culture with the right amount of conditionals and caveats, and everybody loves a polemic. World Cup 2006, then, gave them an opportunity to suggest that the minorities of 21st century France were in fact less compatible with the Republic than their 20th century predecessors, and anyone could see why. Hell: we’d all seen why.

A month before the 2002 World Cup, Le Pen had shockingly reached the second round of the presidential elections only to lose in a landslide to Jacques Chirac, the perennial mainstream right wing candidate. In October 2005, two banlieue teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, died on their way home from football practice, electrocuted as they were seeking refuge from police in a power substation. Outrage over the incident was subsequently aggravated by reckless police action and by the inflammatory comments of then Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy: riots spread from their home of Clichy sous Bois to banlieues around the country, leading the government to declare a state of emergency for the first time since the Algerian war. Already campaigning for the upcoming 2007 presidential election, Sarkozy was following a classic, Thatcherite tactic in using tough talk and recycling Le Pen’s ideas while clamoring not to share his ideology. In turn, Finkielkraut couldn’t possibly admit that he agreed with the notorious anti-Semite Le Pen, but this was precisely the kind of conversation that might keep him in the spotlight, so the good philosopher went high brow: he offered that his comment were only meant to expose France’s “post-colonial privilege.” By that, he did not mean so-called ‘Françafrique’—the network of economic and military alliances built by de Gaulle with former French colonies in Africa in the immediate aftermath of decolonization. No, for Finkielkraut, the presence of players of African descent on the team testified to the continuation of ugly, dated colonial practices transposed to the realm of football; a sports impressment of sorts. Rather than limit themselves to French players, he wisely elaborated, French football authorities tap into the human riches of the dark continent. Of course, Finkielkraut was well aware that all members of the French team are French citizens. Some French people are less French than others.

Case in point: black people. They are not native to French lands, Finkielkraut wisely suggested, and in some cases straight up blurted out. Nothing racist there, just common sense! An understanding of Frenchness rooted in a national historical romance based on strategic forgetting and simplistic straight lines. In this grand narrative, our ancestors are the Gauls, proud moustachioed barbarians who made France by mixing with Romans in a territory supposedly defined by ‘natural boundaries’: even though the current borders of continental France are arguably less than a century old. This, of course, is not to mention France’s oversea territories, which rarely if ever enter this narrative, even though the so-called “old colonies”—Martinique and Guadeloupe—have been French longer than, say, Savoie. In this vision of French history, black French people are either accidents, absent, bit players, or made virtually colorless, through the potent whitewashing magic of the Republic’s colorblindness. My high school teacher friends tell me things have changed: in my day, though, we might read the odd Césaire poem in class, but we never learned about Alexandre Dumas’s Haitian background. We certainly never learned how the Haitian Revolution impacted the French one, or how black representatives sat next to Danton and Robespierre. Blacks fit in the traditional French historical narrative only as anomalies. Athletes, of course, are acceptable since, as Fanon infamously argued, in French culture “the Negro is only biological.” Acceptable, that is as long as they knew their place and kept quiet.

Then came Lilian Thuram. Asked about Le Pen’s comments in the aftermath of France’s stunning round of 16 victory over Spain, the left back retorted: “Le Pen doesn’t seem to be aware that there are French people that are black, blonde, brunette. He has been running for president for years but he does not know French history.” More accurately, Le Pen knows a very specific version of French history, one that takes only what it wants, gleefully steps over the paradoxes at the heart of France’s national identity, and which I would argue is very much embodied in the French Revolution: an event simultaneously nationalist and cosmopolitan, stamped both by the Enlightenment’s commitment to human rights and its role in the rise of racial thinking. The grand narrative of glorious France demands willful ignorance of the complexities and shadows of France’s past. Think of the dissonance in growing up trying to reconcile France’s values with a part of history you know to be French, but which you’ve mostly known to be yours: try being French West Indian. As a child, I remember that my mother, who generally did not care one bit about football, would nevertheless stop to let us know: “Janvion, he’s from Martinique! Trésor, Sonor, they’re from Guadeloupe.” Because French West Indians are French on their own, in their little corner of the Earth, in spite of France, as it were, since their skin color so often seems to void their passport, they traditionally take West Indian presence on the national team as a point of pride, an invisible and silent revenge. Le Pen and Finkielkraut feared that the mere presence of dark natives on the team might lead the country to recognize the debt it owes its second-class citizens, in the present and in the past, for sending them out as cannon fodder on the frontlines, down in mines, and in stadiums all alike.

Thuram ended his response to Le Pen with a peculiar sentence: “By the way, I am not black.” This quote has followed Thuram ever since. On the face of it, and from the other side of the Atlantic, it may seem a rather callous call to respectability politics, echoing uneasily the infamous words of Langston Hughes’s poet friend who wanted “to be a poet—not a Negro poet.” Thuram says he is a French player, not a black player—yet contrary to Hughes’s unnamed friend (psst: Countee Cullen), no one can imagine Thuram actually “wants to be white.” As a player and in years since his retirement, he has been a steady and forceful voice for West Indian art, culture and history. In claiming the colorblind language of the French Republic, Thuram was rather efficiently pointing to the utter hypocrisy of the likes of Finkielkraut—whom he called out elsewhere—rather than Le Pen, those whose racism came under the guise of liberal reflection, glossed in a veneer of respectability. Finkielkraut knew it well, who resorted to schoolyard ad hominem attacks in response to Thuram’s critiques: on at least one occasion, the petty philosopher mocked Thuram “who, now that he wears glasses, has become the master in non-thought for much of the media class, the teacher, the billionaire proctor of politically correct thinking.” Subtle.

But maybe he was on to something: sight, by way of representation and visibility, was paramount here. In the aftermath of the 2005 riots, President Jacques Chirac had highlighted the importance of representation when he insisted that there should be more French people of color on television. This injunction that was quickly followed by the announcement a few months before the World Cup that TF1, France’s foremost TV channel, would soon have in Harry Roselmack France’s first black evening news anchorman. In this context, the supposed overrepresentation of non-whites in team France revealed nothing more than their overall invisibility in French society. What was shocking was not so much that there were so many black people on the team, but that you saw so few in every other public institution. France’s record of abuse against people of African descent might warrant some animosity; yet, hostile reactions have really been benign along the years. In fact, the most surprising may be that people of African descent might feel French at all. But here we are, watching ourselves defending France on fields around the world, like we’ve always done.

Representation—or lack thereof—remains a surface matter. Much like football itself and other forms of entertainments, it is a distraction that matters, merely the symptom of a much deeper problem. Attending to the symptom does not necessarily begin to solve its causes, but the effort is not meaningless either. Chirac understood well what could potentially be gained in such an effort, and in maintaining it as a distraction. Now that discussions of race, culture and religion are omnipresent in French media and public discourse, French players all but entirely abstain from participating in it, opting instead to avoid controversy at all costs. This goes even for Patrice Evra. The once and future king of burns, now in semi-retirement at West Ham, is these days mostly known for his “I love this game” Youtube videos, the latest installment of which features a cameo of his bathtub friend Ducky Ducky. Times have changed. But if the French now have regular, public discussions about race—however awkwardly or appallingly—we owe it in no small part to the loudmouth defenders that have graced the national team’s ranks.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.