With a rapidity uncharacteristic of the French state, the FFF racism scandal has already run it’s predictable course: from outrage to self-exoneration. Yesterday, the French minister of sport Chantal Jouanno announced that no laws had been broken and therefore no specific legal or administrative action needed to take place. The argument was that, while the issue of “quotas” aimed at limiting the number of players of certain backgrounds from being recruited into academies was discussed, it was never put into practice. Mediapart, of course, did point out a significant fissure in the argument: during the taped meeting at the heart of the scandal, Francois Blacquart explicitly said that the idea would be to apply quotas but never openly, to carry out such a policy but sweep it under the rug. (“We could trace, on a non-spoken basis, a sort of quota. But it must not be said. It stays as action only.”) So it is not surprising that, if there was indeed action taken in this direction — as at least one report by an academy coach who says he was “reproached” by higher ups for bringing in “too many blacks and Arabs” suggests there was — there is not much evidence of it.
The Minister did make sure both to also exonerate, and even praise, Mohamed Belkacemi, the man who taped the meeting in the hopes of spurring action internally in the FFF, concluding that he had nothing to do with the leak to the media. And Jouanno did forcefully declare that the recording of the meeting leaves “in general a very disagreeable impression, linked to unsaid suggestions that border on a skid towards racism.” («Il se dégage vraiment une impression générale très désagréable, liée à des sous-entendus très souvent à la limite de la dérive raciste»).
The immediate upshot of the scandal now seems clear: Francois Blacquart will take the fall for the incident, bearing the major portion of the blame, while Laurent Blanc, already largely exonerated, will be kept on in his position as national team coach. Indeed, in an overview of the case and a defense of it’s role in exposing the problem, Mediapart has written that Laurent Blanc seems increasingly to be a “collateral victim” in a larger context of discussion that he “couldn’t control.”
It has been fascinating and instructive to see the varying roles played by three men who played together on the 1998 World Cup team: Lilian Thuram, Laurent Blanc, and Zinedine Zidane. They might stand for the much touted and often mis-apprehended idea of that team as a mythological tricolor of racial toleration — “black, blanc, beur,” (the latter a common term used to describe those, like Zidane, of North African background in France).
In 1998, Blanc was the older player, a crucial leader on the field. He joyfully kissed Barthez’ head before each match as a kind of talismanic act, and was disappointingly absent from the final game because of a controversial red card at the end of the semi-final. Today, he is in a position of tremendous institutional power, as well as burdensome responsibility, as the coach of the French national team in a period of struggle and rebuilding. But Thuram and Zidane emerged from 1998 probably more famous than Laurent Blanc, in a sense: thanks to goals they scored in the semi-final and final respectively, they became icons, and were also seen as hopeful symbols of the successful and empowering incorporation of those who families had roots in French colonialism and post-colonial immigration into the Republic.
Many recent articles have slightly belabored the point that the “mythology” of 1998 is now clearly dead, with the three men no longer unified but split in complex ways by the recent scandal. In fact, though, the death-knell of the “black, blanc, beur” mythology was being rung by commentators within days of the 1998 World Cup victory. The more astute observers in the subsequent months, including Thuram himself, pointed out what was crucial about that moment: the team was a symbol not of what was — indeed quite the opposite — but rather a hint at what could be. If the celebrations of 1998 were so intense it was also because they were a state of exception, a glimpse of an alternative France — one that both confronted and liberated itself from the burdens of it’s colonial past — whose existence seemed fragile, evanescent, even impossible.
The roles played by Zidane and Thuram in the recent debate are very much in line with the public selves they have crafted since 1998. Zidane has been relatively restrained in his participation in public debates, though at time he has spoken out — against Le Pen’s run for president, for instance, in 2005. Though he has participated in various anti-racism campaigns within football, he has always been reticent to speak directly about racism more broadly. In his statement about his famous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final, he never suggested that Materazzi’s words were racist, although he did vaguely connect his own action to the broader issue of racism in European sport. Like other players from the 1998 team, he obviously feels loyalty to Laurent Blanc, and in his classic laconic and measured way came to his defense, stating clear that he is not a racist — “his wife is Algerian!” Zidane exclaimed — and suggesting that he had allowed himself to be “carried away” into an “indecent” discussion. Zidane also criticized the media and those who had spoken “too fast” — and the journalist prodded him into mentioning Lilian Thuram “among others.” If you know Zidane, of course, you know that he always takes a long time before speaking up, so this is no surprise. Zidane made clear that the discussion had shocked him, but argued that it should be seen as part of a larger discussion about the qualities of players and how to form them in academies.
This kind of play of accusation and defense is par for the course when issues of racism come up in football. When Spanish coach Luis Aragones was videotaped calling Thierry Henry a racist epithet years ago, many players — including black players — rushed to his defense, and he himself used the classic defense that he has many black friends. Of course, given the salutary diversity of global football today, no coach or player can actually function professionally without working closely and successfully with people of a range of backgrounds. The real question is how and why, despite that, racialized interpretations of sport remain so powerful and attractive even to those whose long professional experience should, ideally, serve to render the meaningless and absurd.
When such drearily repetitive incidents take place, as they have and will continue to in European football, there is also a strange kind of blindness and historical amnesia that seems to set in. For a very, very long time — dating at least back until the eighteenth century — European racism has often been simultaneously articulated and denied by many actors. In fact French colonial history offers up many examples of administrators who touted and cherished their close relationships with Africans or Algerians, who wrote extensively about their culture and sometimes “went native,” marrying into local families. Many of these in fact did — like some French writers today — see themselves as more enlightened and sympathetic towards Africans than their own local rulers, as bearers of liberation and republicanism. That never prevented them from participating in structures of power that we now easily condemn as racist and exploitative. I’m not saying Laurent Blanc is a colonial administrator, of course — though Sarkozy did famously, in a speech in Dakar, effectively repeat old colonial tropes with seemingly no self-consciousness a few years ago. What I am saying is that we should understand that discussions of racism have always been extremely complicated, and that our struggles today are partly the result of many layers, a suffocating sedimentation, of generations of interaction, conflict and intellectual work that has created the matrix of racist thought as it continues to live on today in France. It’s too easy to argue that times have changed all that radically. Both now and then, the operations of racism and exclusion are extremely complex, not an issue of individual purity or guilt, but one of structures, sensibility, language, and action all intertwined. It is a process and a story we are all embedded within, and the importance of events like the recent FFF scandal is that they illuminate those operations and allow us to identify, analyze, and ideally take action against them.
Like most of those who have defended Blanc, Zidane didn’t directly grapple with the ways in which his words strongly indicated that he was drawing a well-oiled correlation between skin color and tactical versus physical capacity among players, perhaps wanting to believe simply that Blanc didn’t really mean what he sounds like he is saying particularly about black players. But Zidane also communicates a sense that Blanc himself probably feels some sense of shame about the way in which he spoke. We probably won’t get much more out of Zidane, but hopefully Blanc may grapple more directly and forcefully with his recorded words in the coming weeks. That would be important since of all the issues brought up the most serious — to my mind at least — is the fact that despite all his experience in football Blanc nevertheless skidded into what I still consider to be “racist delirium,” in which complex issues of sport training were boiled down into a question of race. Why, we still need to wonder, was it so comfortable for him to talk about “black” players as a group, as a category, with so much ease and comfort, and so little self-consciousness? The point is even more urgent because Zidane and others are certainly right to emphasize that, in his career, Blanc has been exemplary, and can be considered someone who in general has demonstrated a much greater sense of openness and toleration than many other leaders within French society. This is, in other words, an opportunity for self-examination about the ways in which progressive and liberal sectors of that society nevertheless can find themselves caught up in the twists of racial logic, and then strangely shocked when people call them on it.
The difference in approach between Zidane and Thuram to the question is fascinatingly characteristic of their longer history as players and public figures. Zidane spoke in terms of his own emotions and those of Blanc, and in terms of individual attitudes — “Blanc is not racist” — while hinting simply that there are broader and complex issues that should not be boiled down to issues of racism. Thuram, meanwhile, was more immediate and forceful in his denunciation of the discussion at the FFF. He did so, however, by trying and highlighting the danger of certain kinds of ways of thinking, of the way reason is distorted by racial thought, and of the ways in which seemingly common sense discussions — like that of “bi-national” players — can too easily become an “alibi” for more racialized approaches. Thuram has, over the years, labored to focus on structures rather than individual motivation. His attitude towards racist fans who have directed hatred at him in stadiums, for instance, has been remarkably kind: he has repeatedly said and written that the problem is simply that they are caught up in a way of thinking, and that they haven’t had the opportunity to escape that. Since retiring from football, he has put most of his energy into trying to change that situation through the work of his foundation for anti-racist education.
Where Thuram has been intransigent over the years, and rightly I think, is with regards to racism within the French state itself. At the root of his famous public duel with Nicholas Sarkozy over the years, starting during the November 2005 banlieue riots, was Thuram’s sense that public figures and officials should always be held to a higher standard, and that their use of xenophobic or racist language is always unacceptable. Sarkozy was among those who rushed to defend Laurent Blanc, but that of course should come as no surprise: after all, Sarkozy has himself so regularly vehicled offensive messages in his speeches and policies that he puts even Francois Blacquart to shame.
Interestingly, in one of his early defining speeches as Minister of the Interior, Sarkozy lambasted a group of policemen in Toulouse for a recreation program they had funded which used sports as a way of working with and getting to know adolescent boys in the troubled neighborhoods they policed. “You are here to arrest delinquents, not play football with them,” he declared. One can, in a way, see how such attitudes — linked more broadly to cutbacks in social services in the banlieue areas that even official reports saw as part of the reason for the 2005 riots — have slowly seeped into the operations of different sectors of the French state, including now the French Football Federation.
That, in the end, is the real issue. What is most striking about all of this is precisely that someone like Laurent Blanc, who indeed has long demonstrated an openness and capacity to work with a wide range of players, and gained the friendship of loyalty of teammates and players he has coached, could nevertheless be drawn into the discussion recorded at the FFF rather than standing against it. That people who think of themselves as not at all racist can nevertheless vehicle racist messages should, unfortunately, not really be a surprise. The issue is less about the individual, in the end, than about the broader structures of thought and the contexts that facilitate them. The reason all of this is so serious is that any successful project to chip away at and ultimately undermine the hold of racism on French society has to begin with a powerful will on the part of the state to admit and address the problem. What we’ve learned instead in the past weeks — something that has been powerfully clear in other sectors of French life for years — is that those whose talk it should be to educate others themselves are seriously need of their own education about how and why racism remains a powerful poison.
As all of this has been going on, ironically, so was the dedication (presided over by Sarkozy himself) of a new and impressive monument to the memory of the slave trade. It’s the culmination of a long series of historical and political struggles that many historians (including me), have been involved in, along with Thuram himself and other football players such as Bernard Lama. That activism has overcome the resistance of Sarkozy himself, who famously attacked the politics of “repentance” during his presidential campaign. The inscription on the monument represents a profound statement of the centrality of the history of slavery, and slave resistance, to the history of the French Republic:
By their struggles and
their strong desire for dignity
and liberty, the slaves of the
French colonies contributed
to the universality of human rights
and to the ideal of liberty,
equality and fraternity that
is the foundation our republic.
France here pays them tribute.
Given that this important contribution has, until recently, received essentially no recognition at the level of the state — or in education — that step forward can give us a bit of hope that a transformed sense of what France is, and of how it’s complex past of empire shoots through it’s present struggles, will enable people to take the necessary steps towards a different kind of future.