Kylian Mbappé, Karim Benzema and France’s Second-Class Citizens

Fascists love Mbappé and hate Benzema. Between these two lies the problem of romanticizing the French team as an African team.

Image Credit: Metro

Fascists love Kylian Mbappé because his exceptional talents and attitude confirm to their ideal of citizenship for black and brown people. The 19-year old kid, the new Pele, is not only the amazing forward who is now the second-most expensive transfer in the history of professional football and the third teenager ever to play in a World Cup final, he is also wonderful philanthropist who will donate his entire World Cup earnings to fund a charity that sets up sport activities for children with disabilities.

Mbappé, and other black French football players such as Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté transcend race and class because they continue to embody these assumptions of what it means to be a good French citizen.

After the semi-final when France defeated Belgium, Marine Le Pen, the French far-right National Front leader — who insists that “football is not her thing” and who once sneered: “When I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself” — tweeted her support for the French team.

For fascists, Mbappé is the football version of Mamoudou Gassama, the heroic Malian immigrant who was offered fast-tracked and honorary French citizenship and rewarded with a fireman job. Gassama, in a moment of exceptional heroism, climbed four floors of an apartment building to save a four-year-old boy who was hanging from a balcony. Le Pen, of all people, saluted an act of extreme bravery and publicly supported his naturalization.

In a new poll published this week, the French chose Mbappé as their favourite player with 57% of the votes, ahead of Antoine Griezmann and Hugo Lloris, two other white players who are also stars of the national team in Russia. At the same time, recent polls showed that the majority of French people believe there are “too many immigrants” in France. 56% of them supported their government decision to refuse the passage of Aquarius, the rescue ship carrying 629 refugees and migrants.

This binary opposition between exceptional black and brown immigrants and those deemed “a bad batch,” goes beyond recent political tribalism that seemingly divides metropole France into neoliberals and fascists. During colonialism, the French framed naturalization and citizenship as a key resource for elevation and integration of the “Negroes of the colonies.” The assimilationist approach, which continues to drive French policy on immigration, relied on ideals of exceptionalism and civility. Here the only difference between neoliberals and fascists lies in their capacity to manage and “mask this racism by a multiplicity of nuances.”

Failure to accommodate these assimilationist demands puts Blacks and Arabs at risk of being excluded as second-class citizens. Or worse, of being denaturalized. These things are never complex to me; there is always this tacit certainty that now or in fifty years, a second citizenship will be like a temporary visa, a random privilege that can be revoked depending on who is governing.

Compare Mbappe to the reception given to Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid forward.

Fascists hate Karim Benzema, the Banlieue boy par excellence. Born to Algerian immigrants, Benzema is considered, according to Zinedine Zidane, himself a French legend and until recently Benzema’s coach, to be the “world’s best No. 9.” For Zidane, Benzema is the epitome of what a modern striker should be. Yet, none of this proved enough to secure Benzema a position in the final French 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup.

Many media explanations for Benzema’s exclusion rehearse the narrative that Benzema was excluded from the French team since 2015 because of his alleged involvement in a sex-tape blackmail case against his former teammate Mathieu Valbuena.

But the malaise is much more profound between Benzema and France. Long before the blackmail scandal, Benzema was accused of spitting during the singing of the French national anthem and targeted by Le Pen’s Front National over his refusal to the sing the Marseillaise. Even though the blackmail charge was dropped a year ago and Benzema not charged with anything, he is still persona non grata  to French national team coach Didier Deschamps, the national federation, and of course, to fascists.

Benzema was clinical when he declared to Spanish sports paper, Marca: “Deschamps folded due to pressure from France’s racist element.” To which Marine le Pen responded by accusing Benzema of “hiding his wickedness behind a violent charge against the French people.”

Marine le Pen’s  reference to Karim’s “wickedness” and othering him “against the French people” is meant to degrade him and to rehearse the same colonial vocabulary of uncivility and aggressiveness. After all, Benzema, the Muslim of Arab background, is an ideal subject for the irrational fears and hysteria among fascists and pseudo-humanist neoliberals. (Incidentally, Mbappe’s mother is from Algeria. His father is from Cameroon. In the popular imagination, however, he is associated with his father’s background and thus black.)

Mbappé and Benzema are black and brown bodies in white spaces. They are never safe. And same with colonialism, fascism and neoliberalism is continental in its scope.

What happened to Karim can also happen to Kylian. For a nation which oppresses its black and brown citizens when they don’t fit the mold of a “good immigrant;” a nation which justifies xenophobia and exclusion – and therefore criminalize the ‘bad batch’ – is “already a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased, to quote Aime Cesaire.”

There is this repressed fear that these exceptional immigrants can always fall back into their inferior and barbaric instincts.

The notion of the French team as an African team is indefensible.

Further Reading

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Many will read Sisonke Msimang’s new memoir for its musings on exile and home, but it is also a political telling of the complicated South African transition.