Archive for the 'Thuram' Category

Nov 17 2013

Profile Image of Matthew Schorr

Deux Perceptions en concurrence de l’immigration en France

J’ai bien apprécié l’autobiographie de Lilian Thuram que les étudiants francophones ont lu la semaine dernière, et je veux ici élaborer sur mon commentaire du 7 novembre. L’autobiographie est un texte d’espoir, un texte qui démontre la possibilité illimitée qui existe en France. Sans doute, Thuram reconnaît qu’il existe certains problèmes et tensions qui tourmentent la banlieue. Toutefois, Thuram conclut que la banlieue est surtout un endroit positif qui est caractérisé par une richesse culturelle, linguistique, et ethnique. C’est très intéressant de contraster cette expérience de Thuram avec celle de Salie, la protagoniste de Le Ventre de l’Atlantique, un livre de Fatou Diome que la section francophone a lu il y a quelques semaines.

8 juillet 1998, l'autobiographie de Lilian Thuram.

8 juillet 1998, l’autobiographie de Lilian Thuram.

Lilian Thuram immigre en France avec sa mère et sa fratrie. Il identifie un manque de compréhension entre des groupes ethniques dans la banlieue qui résulte d’un manque d’espaces communs. Il lamente aussi le fait que les résidents perçoivent souvent une « frontière invisible » (37) entre leurs quartiers et les autres quartiers de la société, qui contribue à une division artificielle qui crée de la suspicion mutuelle. Thuram remarque que les tensions sont accentuées parce que beaucoup de Français qui habitent hors de la banlieue ont des préjugés contre les banlieusards ; ils supposent que les banlieusards sont obligatoirement pauvres et violents. Les tensions déstabilisent la société en créant une méfiance mutuelle alimentée par le racisme et la xénophobie.

Toutefois, malgré tout ces problèmes de la banlieue, Thuram suggère que la vie dans la banlieue est surtout un expérience riche. Comme enfant, Thuram appréciait beaucoup la diversité de son quartier à Fougères, qu’il appel un “kaléidoscope ethnique” (35). Thuram se souvient le multiculturalisme de ses amis enfantins, et son intérêt pour leurs cultures, leurs langues, et leurs patries. Les matches de foot permettaient aux amis de Thuram de développer des relations respectueuses, sans égard pour la race, le statut socio-économique, ou le pays d’origine.

Diome peint une image opposée de la banlieue. Le personnage principal de sa livre, Salie, immigre en France du Sénégal pour essayer de gagner de l’argent pour améliorer sa vie et celle de sa famille. Nombreux Sénégalais croient que « Chaque miette de vie doit server à conquérir la dignité » (30), et ils pensent souvent que la vie en France est glamoureuse et que c’est assez facile d’y gagner une fortune. Les garçons sénégalais sont particulièrement éblouis par la France, et ils perçoivent le football d’être un raccourci à la richesse. Toutefois, la vie de Salie n’est pas la vie de star, et la France n’est pas un paradis pour des immigrés. A cause de sa pauvreté, son statut comme immigré, et son ethnicité, Salie trouve que sa vie en France est dure. Elle regrette que « En Europe…vous êtes d’abords noirs, accessoirement citoyens, définitivement étrangers, et ça, ce n’est pas écrit dans la Constitution, mais certains le lisent sur votre peau » (176). Par conséquent, Salie cherche à dissuader son frère de venir en France. Diome suggère que c’est possible d’avoir une vie épanouissante au Sénégal et que ce chemin est préférable à l’émigration.

Le Ventre de l'Atlantique, un roman de Fatou Diome.

Le Ventre de l’Atlantique, un roman de Fatou Diome.

L’incompatibilité des deux perceptions de l’immigration est frappante. C’est évident que Thuram et Diome ont des rapports très différents avec la France et que la France la signification de la France n’est pas le même pour tout le monde. L’immigration et la banlieue, la destination de beaucoup d’immigrés, sont complexes. Thuram identifie des vrais avantages de la vie dans la banlieue malgré tous les problèmes qui y existent. En même temps, il faut reconnaître que Thuram a atteindre plus de richesse et célébrité que la grande majorité d’immigrés. Par conséquent, sa perception de la possibilité qui existe dans la banlieue n’est pas nécessairement comparable à celle de beaucoup d’autres immigrés, come Salie. Malgré des rêves des garçons sénégalais d’être comme Thuram, son niveau de réussite est extrêmement difficile à atteindre.

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Nov 02 2013

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Lilian Thuram’s Autobiography

Filed under France,Thuram

Published in 2004 in France — and not yet translated into English — Lilian Thuram’s autobiography 9 Juillet 1998 is a fascinating portrait of contemporary France and of the world of football. In it, he describes his childhood in Guadeloupe and his family migration to the suburbs of Paris, where he grew up in a project outside Fontainebleau. His descriptions of life in the banlieue are particularly striking because of the very positive representation he offers of these spaces that are often seen in a very negative light. He celebrates the diversity and the community he found there. His stories of his early footballing career, notably his mentorship by Arsene Wenger among others, will interest football fans. And his lucid vision — at once celebratory and cautious — of the impact of the 1998 World Cup on France is one of the most interesting parts of the book. In the comments below, students from Duke’s Fall 2013 “Soccer Politics” offer some translations and analysis of particularly interesting passages from this book.

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Mar 20 2013

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

The Blood of the Impure

This Post was originally published at Football is a Country. My thanks to them for permission to cross-post.

The French national anthem, La Marseillaise, is, if you think about it, a pretty nasty song. It dreams, in one of its more memorable verses, that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields.” It’s a rousing anthem, to be sure, and I myself can frequently be heard humming it to myself in advance of a match being played by Les Bleus, or as I ride my bike or do the dishes. I’ve found that it’s sometimes hard to find a French person (at least if you hang out, as I do, with too many intellectuals), who can actually sing it without irony. And yet, over the past 26 years, the question of whether a particular subset of French men – those who play on the national football team – sing the Marseillaise under certain conditions has been a rather unhealthy obsession in France (we’ve blogged about it before, when Kinshasa-born flanker Yannick Nyanga sobbed uncontrollably during the anthem ahead of a rugby match vs Australia last year).

We are now being treated to what feels to me like Act 467 of this drama. Karim Benzema, as anyone who attentively watches French football matches knows, doesn’t sing the anthem before matches. In a recent interview, asked why, he answered in a pleasingly flippant way: “It’s not because I sing that I’m going to score three goals. If I don’t sing the Marseillaise, but then the game starts and I score three goals, I don’t think at the end of the game anyone is going to say that I didn’t sing the Marseillaise.” Pushed further on the question, he invoked none other than Zinedine Zidane who, like Benzema, was the child of Algerian immigrants to France – and who also happens to be the greatest French footballer of all time, and the one to whom the team owes its one little star on its jersey: “No one is going to force me to sing the Marseillaise. Zidane, for instance, didn’t necessarily sing it. And there are others. I don’t see that it’s a problem.”

Ah, Karim, but it is a problem, don’t you see? In fact, your decision about whether to vocalize or not, as you stand in line under the careful scrutiny of cameras, about to enter into a hyper-stressful and aggressive sporting match during which your every action will be dissected and discussed, is an unmistakable sign about whether or not the true France will survive or alternatively be submerged in a tide of unruly immigrants and their descendants.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as Michel Platini has noted, in his generation no footballers ever sang the Marseillaise, and that “white” footballers – even the Muslim Franck Ribéry, who at best mutters a bit during the anthem but is much more enthusiastic in his pre-game prayers to Allah – are rarely if ever asked this particular question, even so some will continue to insist that your choice not to sing is a window onto your disloyal soul. As the Front National explained: “This football mercenary, paid 1484 Euros per hour, shows an inconceivable and inacceptable disdain for the jersey that he is lucky to be able to wear. Karim Benzema does not “see the problem” with not singing the Marseillaise. Well, French people wouldn’t see any problem with having him no longer play for the French team.”

Some genealogy is in order here. In 1996, Jean-Marie Le Pen first levied this accusation against the French team. France was playing in the European Cup, and playing well. But he was a bit disturbed by something he saw: an awful lot of them seemed, well, not really to be French. “It’s a little bit artificial to bring in foreign players and baptize them ‘Equipe de France,’” he opined. The team, he went on – with blithe disregard for the bald falsity of what he was saying, since no one can play on the French team who is not a French citizen, and nearly all of the players had in any case been born in France – was full of “fake Frenchmen who don’t sing the Marseillaise or visibly don’t know it.” When pressed on these comments a few days later, he lamented that while players from other countries in the tournament sang their anthems, “our players don’t because they don’t want to. Sometimes they even pout in a way that makes it clear that it’s a choice on their part. Or else they don’t know it. It’s understandable since no one teaches it to them.”  [For more on this, see Laurent's excellent book, Soccer Empire -- Ed]

The response to Le Pen’s 1996 comments was immediate and resounding: everyone, or almost everyone, called him an idiot. Politicians, pundits, and journalists all piled on, falling over themselves to denounce his comments and declare their love for the French team. In fact he managed to do something rather extraordinary with his comments, pushing a group of athletes – most of whom would likely have never made public political statements about the questions of race, immigration, and identity in France – to become activists of a kind.

Christian Karembeu – from the Pacific territory of New Caledonia – made a decision. “From that on, I didn’t sign the Marseillaise. To raise people’s consciousness, so that everyone will know who we are.” He knew the words perfectly, he explained. “In the colonies, everyone has to learn the Marseillaise by heart at school. That means that I, from zero to twenty-five years old, knew the Marseillaise perfectly.” But when he heard the song, Karembeu explained, he thought “about his ancestors” – indigenous Kanaks who had been drafted in New Caledonia and died on the battlefields of World War I for France. “The history of France is that of its colonies and its wealth. Above all, I am a Kanak. I can’t sign the French national anthem because I know the history of my people.”

CUP-FR98-BRA-FRA-KAREMBEU-RONALDO-RIVALDO

One of Karembeu’s teammates, the Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram, also experienced the event as a kind of political awakening. He made a different choice when it came to the song: he always sang it loudly, and famously off tune, often with tears in his eyes. But doing so was part of a political stance that overlapped with Karembeu’s: in the next years, Thuram became a powerful and potent voice criticizing Le Pen, and later Nicholas Sarkozy, and advocating for acknowledgment, study, and confrontation with the past of slavery and colonialism. In his retirement, he has – in a move that, to say the least, is not the usual path taken by post-career athletes – devoted himself to anti-racist education, and recently curated an exhibit at the Quai Branly outlining the history of colonial and racial representations of “the Other.”

Le Pen’s comments were also a case of spectacularly bad timing. Though France didn’t win the European Cup, a team made up of most of the same players did the unthinkable in 1998 and won the World Cup in Paris. This victory would, in any situation, have been greeted with an outpouring of joy. But thanks largely to Le Pen’s comments – and to the fact that it was Thuram and Zidane – who scored the pivotal goals in the semi-final and final, the event was greeted by many in France as a powerful celebration of a new multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation. There was an outpouring of comments from all sides that saw, in the team, precisely the opposite of what Le Pen had suggested: a France which, thanks to the contributions of all its different peoples, of all backgrounds, had won a critical victory.

Zinedine Zidane, for instance, reflected on the World Cup victory as a moment of consolidation and reconciliation for him and his family, and more broadly for Algerians and their descendants in France, many of whom waved Algerian flags to celebrate. “There was something very moving about seeing all those Algerian flags mixed in with the French ones in the streets on the night of our victory. This alchemy of victory proved suddenly that my father and mother had not made the journey for nothing: it was the son of a Kabyle that offered up the victory, but it was France that became champion of the world. In one goal by one person, two cultures became one.” The victory was “the most beautiful response to intolerance.” He described the victory as an explicit response to Le Pen: “Frankly, what does it matter if you belt out the Marseillaise or if you live it inside yourself? … Do we have to belt out this warrior’s song to be patriotic?”

It is, perhaps, this Zidane that Benzema was trying to channel in his comments. Of course, they come at a very different time. Zidane could speak from the pinnacle of victory. Benzema speaks in the midst of a long period of relative failure on the part of the French team – the debacle of 2010, the ultimate disappointment of the European Cup last summer, and now an ongoing struggle to qualify for 2014 in Brazil. The current debate about the Marseillaise, too, is haunted by the many controversies surrounding the booing of the anthem during matches pitting France against Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco over the past years. In September 2001, after pro-Algeria fans invaded the pitch during a game against France, Le Pen once again used football as a touchstone for his political campaign, this time with more success. He announced his candidacy for president in front of the Stade de France a few weeks later, explaining he had chosen the site because it was where “our national anthem was booed.” The next year, he made it into the second round of the presidential election, forcing the French to choose between him and Jacques Chirac. The French team mobilized again, with even Zidane urging people to vote against Le Pen.

We might imagine that there is, somewhere in the Front National office, presumably some kind of little file, or perhaps a handbook, on how to take advantage of various incidents on the football pitch for political gain. And one can predict that, like Benzema, future footballers who – because of the accident of their ancestry – are be suspected of disloyalty by French xenophobes will be asked this same question again and again: “Why don’t you sing the Marseillaise?” They’ll be able to look back to find various ways to answer the question, and indeed will have quite the menu: do you politely offer a “Va te faire foutre!” with sauce Karembeu, Thuram, Zidane, or Benzema? Eventually, one might be able to offer an entire seminar on the meaning and performance of nationalism using nothing but examples from the debate about football and the Marseillaise. The field of French Cultural Studies will eventually acknowledge that Jean-Marie Le Pen has been our greatest friend over the years, a generative thinker without whom we might have little to write about.

In the meantime, on the pitch France will need all the help it can get as they are about to take on reigning World and double European champions Spain. Many fans will probably be open to the players using any form of inspiration they might need in order to score some goals and win this critical game, so that they won’t put us all through the usual torture of dragging out qualification until the last minute. (Remember the hand of Henry?)

Do they want to pray to Allah, Jesus, Zarathustra? Be our guest. Invoke their Ancestors the Gauls, channel the spirit of the founder of the World Cup, the Frenchman Jules Rimet, or call down the West African warrior god Ogun? Fine with us. At the end of the game, as Benzema has pointed out, if they’ve scored three goals and pull off a win, no one will remember what they were singing when the game began.

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Jun 08 2012

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

What Would Thuram Do?

In 1996, after France narrowly defeating Bulgaria to move on from the group stages of the European Cup competition, the French defender Marcel Desailly made a striking accusation during a press conference. Hristo Stoichkov, the star Bulgarian striker, had racially abused him during the game. “Hey Desailly, do you know that little kids are dying of hunger in your country,” Desailly claimed Stoichkov had said to him on the pitch during one of a number of heated entanglements. And then he added: “Shitty country, shitty blacks, shitty skin.”

Desailly was born in Ghana but grew up in comfortable circumstances with his mother and a French step-father. As he writes in his autobiography, Stoichkov’s comments ultimately had an awakening effect on him, driving him to reconnect with Ghana after years of relative distance. But his public accusation against Stoichkov was itself both a courageous and relatively rare thing: this was not something black players did in the 1990s in the midst of major tournaments. And there was in fact little result: the UEFA did nothing to Stoichkov — who when confronted by Desailly after the match had refused to apologize and said “I believe what I said.” The incident was, in any case, soon overshadowed by a larger racial scandal, when far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen famously attacked his national team — which included Desailly, Lilian Thuram, Christian Karembeu, and Zinedine Zidane — of being composed of “foreign players” and “fake Frenchmen” who didn’t know the words to the Marseillaise, or else refused to sing it if they did. The comments incited a wave of criticism from the players, politicizing many of them, as well as from politicians and media figures in France. Though France didn’t win the Euros that year, the tournament ended up setting the stage for the 1998 World Cup in at least two ways: it helped solidify the team, but it also transformed it into a symbol of multi-cultural France and made supporting Les Bleus a form of anti-racism activism for many. (This is a story I tell in some detail in my book Soccer Empire).

Eighteen years later, another European Cup begins, and once again the question of race, nation, and sport are center stage. This time the story is beginning in a very different way: thanks in large part to a controversial BBC show about Ukraine and Poland called “Stadiums of Hate,” there has been wide-spread concern about the presence of racist, anti-semitic — and violent — fan groups in the countries hosting the Cup this year. Sol Campbell urged English fans to stay away from the Euro, and others have made similar warnings. In response, Polish and Ukrainian authorities have decried the BBC show as extremely partial, focusing on a marginal phenomenon, and tried to reassure everyone that there will be no problems during the tournament. But yesterday members of the Dutch team, having just returned from a visit to pay homage at Auschwitz, were greeted by monkey calls by a group of Polish fans as they practiced, prompting Van Bommel to warn that the team would leave the pitch if this happened during a game. Mario Balotelli, meanwhile, has already threatened to do the same.

Will the players do it? Many people are hoping they will. In a recent interview I did with Lilian Thuram, he insisted that if players — and all players, not just black players — banded together and refused to play as long as racism of any kind was tolerated in the stadium then the federations would very quickly act to solve the problem. But UEFA President Michel Platini has announced that if Balotelli or anyone else walks off because of racial abuse, they’ll get a yellow card. It will be up to the referees, not the players, to decide whether the situation in the stands merits and end to the game.

If we take a step back from all of this, there’s a fascinating set of historical shifts at work. It wasn’t all that long ago, after all, that many European countries dreaded the arrival of English fans, who were notorious for right-wing affiliations and violent behavior. In one incident among many, during the 1998 World Cup fans of the England team, in Marseille for a game against Tunisia, rampaged through the center of town beating up people they saw as North African, as well as attacking a beach in the middle of the day and beating up families picnicking ocean-side. The problem of English “hooliganism” was in fact a pan-European obsession throughout the 1980s and 1990s — producing among perhaps it’s signal literary expression in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (a brilliant work of that is part embedded ethnography journal part journey to self-realization as thug). Monkey noises, bananas thrown on the pitch, neo-nazi symbols, brutal beatings and killings — it was all there, and it was thoroughly English in many European’s eyes. Now, some decades on, the English are leading the charge in criticizing the Ukranians and Poles for their unruly and violent fans, and it’s not surprising that some of the accused have had their hackles raised by the process.

At the same time, of course, the reality is that in England — precisely because of the magnitude of the problem — is now home to what is probably the most aggressive and committed program of action against racism in football in Europe. This year alone has seen two major cases involving racism on the pitch, and indeed what England captain John Terry has to look forward to after the Euros is being put on trial for racial harassment — which does make the English a bit of an easy target for accusations of hypocrisy. There have been arrests for racist tweets and programs through which fans can warn officials about racist chants they hear.

Of course, one way to interpret this is to insist the England still has as much of a problem with racism in football as the Ukraine and Poland do. But that would be a bit too easy: for it is true that today the kinds of anti-semitic, neo-Nazi, and racist banners and symbols that were clearly visible in stadium crowds shown on the BBC would rarely if ever be tolerated by officials in an English stadium. And in Italy, Holland, Spain and France the situation — while far from perfect — is also very different from what it was even a decade ago.

Underneath all this, of course, is a broader set of intricate tensions about Europe itself: after all, Eastern European immigration to Western Europe is a major phenomenon, and while such immigrants are not generally stigmatized quite as harshly as those from Africa and Asia, there are clearly social and cultural tensions that subtend all of this. (During one political campaign in France, just as an example, the threat of the “Polish plumber” who was to come and steal the jobs of perfectly competent “French plumbers” was bandied about). While it’s often difficult to trace the connections between such broader social phenomenon and football, they should not be disregarded as part of the current story — and one of the reasons the whole question has created so much tension, accusation, and counter-accusation.

Every international football tournament brings scrutiny to host countries — recall the extensive worried hair-rending surrounding the problem of security in South Africa (which turned out to be largely a non-issue), or simply look to the various panics surrounding whether Brazil will be “ready” for 2014. But to my knowledge — and I may well be overlooking cases here — the question of racist and anti-semitic fans as the major problem for a host is a new phenomenon. (The most dangerous thing about South African fans, it seemed, was the vuvuzela). And within Europe’s contemporary political landscape — as well as the landscape of European football — it needs to be taken seriously. The defense that racist and anti-semitic fans are a fringe group is an old one: the same was, rightly, said by those decrying the depictions of English “hooliganism” in the 1980s and 1990s. But the question of their presence, and their impact on the field of play, is as relevant as it ever has been.

What has changed since 1996? At once a lot — and too little. The intense scrutiny about racism in football is testament to the success of the actions taken by players such as Desailly, Lilian Thuram, and Thierry Henry — who responded to racial epithets directed at him by Spanish national team coach Luis Aragonès by partnering with Nike to launch an anti-racism campaign. But it’s striking how relevant the message of this campaign remains.

What players like Mario Balotelli — as well as Lilian Thuram, from a retirement he has devoted to anti-racist activism and education – are saying is that a more militant approach may be needed. After years of football federations and FIFA carrying out extensive public campaigns against racism in football, it can still emerge to haunt one of the sport’s most important international tournaments. It may turn out that all the sound and fury about this will turn out to have been misplaced. Perhaps the small groups of Ukranian and Polish fans foregrounded in “Stadiums of Hate” are truly a fringe, and they will be successfully kept out of the stadium — and away from visiting fans whose physical appearance might not please them — during the next month. Let’s hope that is the case. But if it is not, it may be politically and historically necessary for players to force the issue, as some have threatened to do. And, especially if action is taken in full solidarity — so that it is not presented as a problem facing black players, but rather as one affecting all players — it might make an important difference. Balotelli certainly loves to court controversy, but his matter-of-fact approach to the issue is refreshing. After all, in what other profession would those in charge simply tell people to deal with it if people racially harass them while they are working? Players have the right to wonder: how long do we have to wait?

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May 11 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

Thuram, Blanc, Zidane

Filed under France,Racism,Thuram,Zidane

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).

Laurent Blanc Congratulates Lilian Thuram During France-Croatia 1998 Semi-Final

Zidane Comforts Blanc After His Expulsion in the Same Game

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.

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