Is France's ethnically diverse team a symbol of multiculturalism?

As players of African and Arab origin prepare to fight for the final, 1998 win hailed as diversity feat is remembered.

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    Is France's ethnically diverse team a symbol of multiculturalism?
    France's national team, which comprises players of Arab and African descent, is as diverse as some sections of the country [Henry Romero/Reuters]

    This story has been updated since it was first published to reflect France's win against Belgium in the semi-final World Cup match.

    Paris, France - "They can be black, Arab, white, Muslim … as long as they play good football," said Tim, as he watched France play Peru in Russia, from a shisha lounge in the gentrified 20th arrondissement of Paris. 

    Tim, a 28-year-old of Ivorian descent, and most of the people watching the game in late June in this cafe were immigrants or the children of immigrants.

    "It's a good team," said Mane, 36, who is of Gambian origin. "But the chemistry is lacking, the coordination isn't as good as the '98 generation. But they've already improved a lot."

    On Tuesday evening, France beat Belgium 1 - 0 and will now play in the World Cup final.

    Comprising players of Arab and African descent, the team is as diverse as some sections of the country - evoking memories of 1998, when France won the competition.

    Twenty years have passed since Les Bleus took the cup home when they unexpectedly beat Brazil 3 - 0.

    For a minute there, you could be brown or black and party on the street without getting harassed.

    Gregory Pierrot, professor and author, commenting on the 1998 French World Cup victory

    Then, the phrase "Black, Blanc, Beur" was popularised - a play on the "bleu, blanc, rouge" French tricolour, meaning black, white and Arab players were united on the field.

    "In a way, team France's win followed a classic sports story arc [in 1998]. It delivered anxiety, drama, beauty, greatness, and in the end, our guys won," said Gregory Pierrot, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut's English department who has written extensively on race relations in France and football.

    "Beyond the team itself, for a minute there, you could be brown or black and party on the street without getting harassed. News pieces [explored] the lives of players had to bring up Algeria, Africa, the West Indies," he told Al Jazeera.

    "But much of this exploration was fairly shallow or rather focused on surface matters of representation."

    The French state did a lot of work to uphold the 1998 team as [an icon] of a multicultural France, but those on the team never really saw it as such.

    Paul Silverstein, professor 

    In 1998, Jacques Chirac was president and faced a far-right challenge as Jean-Marie Le Pen prepared to battle him for the presidency in 2002.

    The leadership sought to capitalise on the diversity success story of the French football team.

    "[In 1998] Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Jacques Chirac certainly milked it for all it was worth, and it may have shut up Le Pen for a while," said Pierrot.

    The euphoria for the team was palpable in Paris - an image of man of the match Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, was projected on the Arc de Triomphe.

    Le Pen made it to the second round of the election four years later, but Chirac won.

    July 12, 1998: Joy for France as match winner Zinedine Zidane lifts the trophy after victory [Ben Radford /Allsport/Getty Images]

    Nineteen years later, in 2017, Le Pen's far-right daughter Marine also made it to the second round, ultimately losing to Emmanuel Macron.

    Paul Silverstein, a professor of anthropology at Reed College, warned against interpreting events such as the World Cup as deeply symbolic.

    "The French state did a lot of work to uphold the 1998 team as [an icon] of a multicultural France, but those on the team never really saw it as such," he told Al Jazeera."Zidane rarely, if ever, spoke of his identity and refused presentations of himself as some French role model; he was primarily concerned with his public image as a footballer and saw the rest as merely his personal business."

    Players such as Lilian Thuram, who was born in the French West Indies, and Christian Karembeu, who hails from New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the Pacific Islands, meanwhile, used the tournament as a platform to continue denouncing racism.

    'These kids are proud of their heritage'

    This year's set includes 19-year-old prodigy Kylian Mbappe, of Cameroonian and Algerian descent and Paul Pogba, whose parents are Guinean.

    They come from the country's marginalised suburbs that surround major French cities, and Paris in particular - the "banlieues".

    In 2016, when asked why there was so much talent in these impoverished communities, Pogba said football was an activity that kept boys out of trouble.

    "Whether it's at school or outside in the neighbourhood, everyone will play football. And that helps [keep people away from] doing stupid things," said Pogba. "Every day, it's the ball. That's all there is."

    The official French football team photo [Frederic Stevens/Getty Images]

    "Many summer camps unsurprisingly centre on organised sports," Silverstein, the anthropology professor, wrote recently. "Granted, banlieue kids require little encouragement to play football … But successive French governments have massively invested in sporting infrastructures and training methods precisely to discipline the next generation to play collectively for the glory of the nation." 

    But throughout the years, players of African or Arab origin have been questioned over their allegiance to the flag.

    Karim Benzema, who has said that "Algeria is my parents' country and it is in my heart, but football-wise, I will only play for the French national team", is not in this year's team.

    He has previously refused to sing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, because, he said, "it calls for war".

    For Pierrot, the anthem debate is an example of what some see as the "Le Pen-isation" of French minds.

    "Le Pen made a fuss about it, it became a news item, then it turned into a national conversation," he said. 

    The current team is not particularly political but has not shied away from celebrating their rich cultural heritage.

    A video viewed tens of thousands of times, and filmed by a player, shows the French team enjoying a victory in their bus with African music.

    "These kids have roots in specific countries and culture [and] are proud of their heritage, and perhaps more importantly, they are proud of one another's heritage," said Pierrot, the professor and author. "And that is what makes them French: France - the concrete place and the imagined community is where they all meet."

    Manager Didier Deschamps, right, and the French team ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup match against Argentina [Sergei Savostyanov/TASS/Getty]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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