France, football and racism: The Karim Benzema affair

Adulated by a generation of fans, football players can have a longer reach than elected presidents.

Karim Benzema says he was denied the chance to play for France in Euro 2016 this month because of his Algerian origins [Reuters]
Karim Benzema says he was denied the chance to play for France in Euro 2016 this month because of his Algerian origins [Reuters]

A week before the start of the 2016 European football championship, France was plagued by a series of head winds threatening the smooth start of a long-awaited sports event to restore national unity and popular support.

If the situation is not as tragic as in Brazil, where the road to the Olympic Games has been marred by corruption scandals, wobbly infrastructure and environmental hazards, the latest events in Paris are putting in jeopardy the expected popular communion around sport’s most popular game.

Inside Story – France’s paralysing strikes

Stadiums are built, infrastructure is ready. Yet it remains uncertain whether European fans will be able to fully use them. First, the country has been paralysed for weeks by labour unions more eager to prevent reform and protect their social benefits and political leverage than to participate in the country’s economic recovery.

Then, France confronted natural hazards as the streets of Paris  were overtaken by the worst floods in more than a century.

State of emergency

All this at a time when the country is still under an official state of emergency after the terrorist attacks last November that took place at the entrance to the very stadium where the European Championship final will be held.

READ MORE: France must remain a vibrant and plural democracy

The failure of French authorities to impede the smuggling of smoke bombs inside the stadium during the recent Cup final between Marseilles and PSG reactivated questions over the organisers’ capacity to prevent potential terrorist attacks during the European Championship.

Half of the current squad would be considered unfit to the likes of Marine Le Pen based on their skin colour or place of birth.

And as if the road to the French Euro was not bleak enough, a new controversy emerged last week.

The latest splinter in France’s foot: a direct attack from Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid striker, who blasted French coach Didier Deschamps for not including him in the 23-man squad for the competition.

Benzema blamed his absence from the squad on supposed cowardice from Deschamps bowing to pressure from a “racist part of France“.

These words echoed a recent declaration from French football great Eric Cantona, who claimed that the reason for the absence of Benzema as well as former teammate Hatem Ben Arfa are to be found in their North African origins.

These arguments are false but also dangerous. If Benzema was ejected from the French squad, it is the result of his participation in a blackmail plot over a sex tape involving another France international.

France plays Cameroon in an international friendly at La Beaujoire stadium, Nantes, France [Reuters]

As for Ben Arfa or even Nasri, their absence is essentially due to character issues and their late return to form. The common racial background of the players is irrelevant.

Worse, it plays into the hands of the xenophobic National Front party, always quick to attack minority players since the South African debacle when the French team went on strike during the World Cup itself.

In fact, half of the current squad would be considered unfit to the likes of Marine Le Pen based on their skin colour or place of birth. The vice-captain Patrice Evra was born in Senegal, the goalkeeper Steve Mandanda emigrated from Congo.

Racial profiling

The latest inclusion to the team – Adil Rami and Samuel Umtiti – had parents from Morocco and Cameroon.

READ MORE: The vilification of Muslims in world sport

Accusing Deschamps of racial profiling is putting the French multicultural youth at odds with their national team at a time when it should bank on a unique opportunity to strengthen a common identity in troubled times.

In 1998, when France won the World Cup, the nation celebrated the “Black, Blanc, Beur” (Black, White, Arab) generation. The face of Zinedine Zidane was brandished as a symbol on the Arc de Triomphe.

This wave of solidarity was short-lived and a decade of right-wing politics ostracised minorities in neglected suburbs as economic growth stumbled.

The shameful Sarkozy-led debate on French identity after the French team became the joke of the South African World Cup further reinforced the radicalisation of a marginalised youth.

Adulated by a generation of fans, football players can utter words that have a longer reach than those of elected presidents, especially for the least educated citizens who might be tempted by extremism.

When Benzema is caught red-handed in a blackmail plot, when Ribery flies in an underage prostitute or when Messi signs agreements for an elaborate scheme to avoid paying taxes, they soil the national jersey and are not worthy of being an example.

At a time when France is in dire need of societal icons to build unity within its multifaceted population, the decision to snub Benzema, Ribery or Nasri was a courageous one. Football has become a quasi-religion for many of the most vulnerable and strayed youngsters.

Sport is a powerful medium to transmit values and is often used as a propaganda tool. From the heroic Soviet coal miner Stakhanov to the 1980 American Hockey team, physical accomplishments have been celebrated and helped support political discourse and societal unity.

From Pele to the late Muhammad Ali, champions have often been the face of the political struggle of minorities. By rebuffing Benzema or Nasri, the French coach took a gamble that should be applauded. It might cost France a European Championship title but it probably will offer much more important and lasting rewards through the emergence of better role models.

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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