58. When being French is not baquette-and-Brie enough

Author: Prof. Adekeye Adebajo
3 September 2018
Business Day
Image supplied by: The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The storm that erupted after France recently won the football world cup with a team dominated by African immigrants, needs to be revisited for historical context. Les Bleus had stars like the Gallic Cameroonian-Algerian Kylian Mbappé; the Guinean-Frenchman, Paul Pogba; the Malian-French citizen, N’Golo Kanté; the Gallic Angolan-Congolese, Blaise Matuidi; and the Cameroonian-Frenchman, Samuel Umtiti. All grew up in the hopeless banlieues: the ghettos of Paris’s inner cities where African and Arab youths face regular discrimination in employment and education, as well as constant police harassment.

The issue of racism, identity, and the French World cup victory was triggered by a spat between South African comedian, Trevor Noah, and the French Ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud. Noah joked that, with 14 of France’s 23 players being African immigrants, this represented an “African victory.” Araud’s angry riposte to Noah, argued that “nothing could be less true”; he praised “French diversity” which, he observed, unlike American diversity, had “no hyphenated identity roots;” and claimed that Noah was – like many French racists – denying the players their “Frenchness”.

Noah’s response made the French diplomat appear to be the clownish comedian. The South African argued that the players could surely be both French and African, noting that when African immigrants in France commit crimes, their Africanness is stressed, but when they win the World Cup, they can only be French! The arrogance of the Gallic Ambassador speaking on behalf of African-descended players from underprivileged backgrounds that he himself had never experienced, was simply breath-taking. Four incidents serve to illustrate Araud’s lack of historical perspective.

In 1998, Algerian-descended Zinedine Zidane led a multicultural French team of players of largely African and Arab ancestry to win the World Cup for the first time on home soil. This victory, however, only temporarily papered over the widespread racism that was often stoked by Gallic officialdom. In a 2000 poll, a third of French respondents complained that there were too many players of foreign origin in the national team.

In the first major incident of football and racism in 2005, populist French Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, notoriously dismissed alienated, rioting Maghrebi and black African youth as “scum”. The thoughtful anti-racism activist, 1998 World Cup winner, Lilian Thuram, noted, in response, that “If they are scum, then so I am.” Thuram had himself grown up in the same inner cities as these youth after arriving in France from Guadeloupe with his family.

The second incident occurred during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, after mostly immigrant French players went on a 10-day strike and refused to train due to insulting treatment from their prejudiced coach, Raymond Domenech. The tiresome trope of unpatriotic “fifth columnists” again reared its ugly head, as the “Frenchness” of these players was widely questioned.

In 2011, a third scandal erupted when French football coach, Laurent Blanc, contrasted the strength and speed of African players with the technique and intelligence that he felt were “more compatible with our culture”. He then controversially suggested imposing a quota on African and Arab youth players with dual nationality entering the French football academy. Blanc argued that respect for French culture and history could become a criterion for admitting youths into the academy. Such patronising, assimilationist drivel was little different from the colonial mission civilisatrice that had tried to create black and Arab Frenchmen, rootless “Mimic Men” devoid of their own cultural identities.

The final incident of Gallic racism came when prolific Algerian-French striker, Karim Benzema, was dropped from the French team in 2016 due to a legal case in which he had been involved in a bizarre blackmailing incident. Benzema had previously proudly described his country as Algeria, and refused to sing the French national anthem, “la Marseillaise”. His response to being dropped was that this had been due to “a racist part of France.”

The lily-white striker, Olivier Giroud – who led the line during France’s World Cup victory without scoring a single goal – clearly better fit the image of a “real” Gaul for many. But to any literate football analyst, it was obvious that Giroud was mediocre compared to Benzema. That the country still won the competition was a tribute to the rest of this talented team, including the peerless Antoine Griezmann.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.