United by football?

At the Euros, the French national football team isn’t talking about football, but the threat posed by a resurgent, xenophobic right-wing in Europe.

Photo by Alice Triquet on Unsplash

France’s Kylian Mbappé, Ousmane Dembélé and Marcus Thuram compose one of the most thrilling attacking trios in the ongoing 2024 European championships. Under normal circumstances, they’d be categorically focused on extending their national team’s domination in world football over the last eight years. In that time period, Les Bleus have won the 2018 FIFA World Cup and reached the final in three of the last four major competitions they’ve participated in (European championships and World Cups). Instead, the dominant media narratives that have sunk in over the last few weeks are not about the players’ footballing abilities, but rather their decision to speak out on France’s precarious political state of affairs this summer.

The turmoil began when the 2024 European Parliament election results were announced in early June. In l’Hexagone, the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party won 30 seats, improving on the last election by seven seats and continuing its steady rise over the past decade. Sensing that his party’s base was swept out from under him, President Emmanuel Macron proceeded to shockingly call for snap legislative elections, over two rounds between June 30 and July 7. In anticipation of another landslide RN victory, a coalition of left-wing parties—including Les Écologistes, La France Insoumise, Parti communiste français, and Parti socialisteformed an alliance named the Nouveau Front Populaire for the legislative elections, with early polls indicating a tight race between the two entities furthest apart on the political spectrum.

To understand why many in French society are desperate to prevent the RN from coming to power, one must understand the party’s roots. Several founders of the RN, such as Pierre Bousquet and Roger Holeindre, had links to Nazi Germany and the OAS, a far-right French terrorist militia that advocated for the continuation of French colonization in Algeria. The party’s longtime leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was credibly accused of torture in Algeria during the war of independence. 

In 2012, Marine Le Pen, his daughter, started a process of “de-demonization” of the party, changing the party name, and logo, and bringing in new faces into the party leadership. Notwithstanding the makeover, the RN has been criticized for the fact that they have historically produced very little in terms of varied governing policies—the bulk of their propositions address how they could stem immigration to France. True to form, the party has promised that if they win the upcoming elections they would put an end to nationality via birthright, streamline deportations, erect a “double-border” in the Schengen zone and ban the hijab in all public places after 2027.

As the RN incessantly uses immigration as cause for all of the country’s woes, by default, that places the party in diametrical opposition to an institution like the French men’s national team, which has always thrived due to its ability to integrate first or second generation immigrants from all over the world. The three greatest French footballers of all time, Michel Platini (Italian), Zinedine Zidane (Algerian), and Kylian Mbappé (Cameroonian and Algerian), are direct products of migration in three different eras. There is even historic precedent for the national team standing in opposition to the RN. As Le Pen qualified for the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, the squad published a press release that condemned his party’s, “resurgent notions of exclusion and racism” and found them, “dangerous for democracy as well as for freedoms, particularly in a multi-ethnic and multicultural France … rich in its diversity.” Zinedine Zidane, Marcel Desailly, and Lillian Thuram were three players that came out particularly strongly in opposition to Le Pen before and after the elections.

Yet, at the Euros this summer, only Marcus Thuram, Lillian’s son, took an explicitly vocal stand against the RN. In a press conference prior to their opening match, Thuram declared, “We have to fight on a daily basis so … that the RN does not pass, in the French team, I think, well I hope, that everyone shares the same opinion as me. I have no doubt that everyone shares my vision on things.” He said.

Ousmane Dembele and Kylian Mbappe also both urged young people to vote in numbers but failed to name and shame the RN. 53% of people aged 18-24 did not vote in the European Parliament elections in early June—an important figure when considering that that age bracket is 2.5 times more likely to vote for a left-leaning party such as La France Insoumise or Les Écologistes compared to the rest of the population. The abstention rate for those over the age of 50 was only 37%, yet despite those tendencies, a worrying indicator from the European elections is that, in mainland France, the RN outperformed all of their other opponents in all age categories, amongst all professions, with the exception of in four departments in Greater Paris.

Dembele explained that he was more focused on fixing low voter turnout than telling people who to vote for. “It’s not that I don’t want to position myself, but given the situation in France, I think the alarm bells have been raised, I think we need to mobilize to vote. I looked at the news and saw that one in two French people did not vote.” Mbappé, who is known to maintain a close relationship with Emmanuel Macron, mentioned, “I am against extremes, against all ideas that divide. I want to be proud to wear this jersey on July 7, and not to represent a country that does not correspond to my values.”

Predictably, the players were on the receiving end of backlash from the RN. A spokesperson for the party, Julien Odoul, exclaimed that he was “Fed up with these privileged lesson-givers who take the French people for imbeciles!” Edwige Diaz, the vice president of the RN, targeted Mbappé, saying, “I regret the comments made by the captain of the French team and other members of the French team. I imagine that when we earn millions of euros per month, we perhaps have difficulty understanding these French people who cannot make ends meet, these French people who give up healthcare and heating to eat properly.”

It was an interesting line of attack that revealed a simultaneously simple and complex faultline. The RN’s attempt to position their party as representative of the “true” marginalized working-class allows them to exclude national team footballers, most of which have come from poor working-class immigrant backgrounds as “lesson-givers,” now that they have graduated on to another tax bracket. 

One week ago, a source with personal knowledge of the French national team spoke to the Le Parisien newspaper, and said, “We have guys that lean left and right but we would be surprised to see a single player or staff member vote for the RN.” That is perhaps proof that current political allegiances in France are often not defined by traditional class cleavages.

On the field of play, Didier Deschamps’s men put in a subpar performance in their opening match versus Austria but still managed to nick a one-nil victory. However, Mbappé suffered a broken nose and is uncertain to feature in their second group stage match against the Netherlands on Friday afternoon.

Between the European championships and the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, this summer was supposed to be one of sporting festivities and national unity. Yet, that is quickly being usurped by brazen displays of neo-fascism by supporters at the Euros, and the threat of an extreme right-wing party finally coming to power in a matter of weeks in France. The unofficial anthem of the tournament has become the chant “Auslander Raus” (which means “Foreigners Out” in German), belted to the tune of Gigi D’Agostino’s 90s dance hit “L’Amour Toujours.” Buoyed by the right’s strong showing in the European Parliament elections, “Europe for Europeans” is a resurgent sentiment. Still, the slogan for this year’s Euros  is “United by football.” Where politics has struggled, we often turn to the transcendental power of sports to help overcome racial, religious, or ethnic divisions. But increasingly, this may not be enough.

Further Reading