Was that an Apology?

By | May 1, 2011

The French Football Federation has issued a communiqué by Laurent Blanc in response to the allegations published last week by Mediapart about the existence of a plan to limit the numbers of “black and Arab” football players within the national youth system. It’s a rather strange statement. Blanc, who initially issued a blanket denial about everything attributed to him in the article, now seems to be admitting that he did participate in a discussion about the topic of players who might have the possibility of playing for other national teams, and more broadly about the issue of the style of play being developed within the youth system. Here’s a summary along with a translation of what I see as the most important parts of the communique, which is available at the FFF website.

Blanc began by saying that he was not “taking back” anything that he said earlier. And then he offered this sentence, of the kind that could really only be produced in French:  “Que certains termes employés au cours d’une réunion de travail, sur un sujet sensible et à bâtons rompus, puissent prêter à équivoque, sortis de leur contexte, je l’admets et si, pour ce qui me concerne, j’ai heurté certaines sensibilités, je m’en excuse. Mais être soupçonné de racisme ou de xénophobie, moi qui suis contre toute forme de discrimination, je ne le supporte pas”.

Here’s my attempt to translate: “I admit that some terms used during a work-related meeting, on a delicate subject and with frequent interruptions, might seem ambiguous, when taken out of their context, and if I have shocked some sensibilities, I’m sorry. But I can’t accept that I, who am against all forms of discrimination, should be suspected of racism and xenophobia.”

He then went on to denounce the Mediapart article and to insist that only someone with “bad faith” could argue that he had ever participated in a debate aimed at reducing the number of “blacks and Arabs” in training centers. Rather, his only intention was to think through the “future of French football” and therefore necessarily of engaging with the “delicate problem” of players of double nationality as well as the “modalities for the detection and selection aimed at a new project for playing the game.” Obviously, he went on, that would have an impact on the “different profiles of players,” but insisted that there was no link with “a preference or rejection of one or another nationality.” “My only concern is to have good players for a good French team,” he went on, “whether they are big or small, and whatever their place of birth or their ancestry.” That, he concluded should be easy enough for anyone to understand — except for those who “for one reason or another” were “mixing everything up” and doing “great harm,” and “not only to football.”

What should we make of this statement? What’s missing is any direct response to the most alarming aspects of his reported statements (which I wrote about in detail in yesterday’s post). Why, precisely, does the question of players who are trained in France but go on to play for other national teams bother Blanc, and the FFF, so much? After all, the Federation retains a tremendous power and hold over players. And it is very hard to see how a policy aimed at weeding out players who could potentially acquire double nationality and play on teams in North or West Africa would not effectively be a policy of racial discrimination.

As importantly, how was it that the discussion of style of play end up becoming a question about the presence of “blacks” in French football? Blanc makes no mention of perhaps the most startling quote attributed to him, that in which he described the presence of “blacks” as a “problem,” one that he claimed the Spanish didn’t have. The only relic of that discussion in his statement today is the slightly odd phrase where he declares that he’s interesting in having players “whether they are big or small,” seemingly a reference to his quoted comments about how the training centers are full of “big, strong, powerful” black players who, he seems to have suggested, needed to be replaced by more tactically astute players.

Prominent French footballing figures seem to have a knack for non-apology apologies. Zidane’s interview in the wake of his 2006 head-butt was a stellar example of this. Unfortunately, Blanc hasn’t really answered the most important question to come out of this affair: did he, and others at the FFF, interpret issues of playing style and skill, and questions about regulations surrounding service on national squads, in terms of racial distinctions and categories? The Mediapart report suggests strongly that they did. Blanc’s statement insists that they didn’t. The Football Federation’s investigation and suspension of Francoise Blacquart, the other major figure implicated in the report, indicate they are concerned about the reports, and perhaps also know that Mediapart’s articles were in fact at least partly accurate.

We’ll be lucky if we get much clarity about all this soon — or indeed ever. And yet the broader lesson here, I think, is a well-known but vital one: racism is habit forming, and when it becomes a common currency in a society and it’s official culture, it becomes extremely easy for people to deploy it in order to make sense of a confusing and concerning reality.

Speaking on Téléfoot in an interview done yesterday and aired today, meanwhile, Lilian Thuram explained how, having first read the article, he found himself “a little destabilized.” “I told myself it was false.” He called people he knew at the FFF. And he wasn’t satisfied, it seems, with their response. Although he was still waiting for “proof,” he declared: “it’s clear we are at the heart of a scandal.” He described how he felt “hurt” by the scandal: “You tell yourself that it’s a perpetual (cycle) to always cast doubt on people with regards to their colour and religion.” In the interview, he also importantly pointed out that the whole issue of double nationality is a “false problem,” because “the best players will be retained by France.” “Those who leave are those who haven’t been selected. What country to Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Yann Mvila play for?”

And then Thuram summed up the whole telling mess effectively: “When you start out with the wrong analysis, you’ll necessarily end up with bad proposals.”

In 2010, Thuram joined the council of the French Football Federation (he was the first black person to be part of the body), but quit in December apparently because he was dissatisfied with the lack of action taken against the players involved in the World Cup debacle in South Africa. It won’t surprise me if the FFF comes calling again, though, and soon. But Thuram also has a knack for knowing when someone wants to use him as a token — he famously refused an invitation by Sarkozy to become a Minister in the French government — and it will be interesting to see if he accepts such an invitation. And given that his resignation took place about the time that the conversations reported in Mediapart also apparently took place, one wonders whether Thuram actually had other reasons to leave. It’s time, of course — it has been for a long while — for the FFF to embark on some deep and profound changes. Whether they have the will, capacity, or imagination to do so is a big question, however.

Category: France Racism

About Laurent Dubois

I am Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. I founded the Soccer Politics blog in 2009 as part of a course on "World Cup and World Politics" taught at Duke University. I'm currently teaching the course under the title "Soccer Politics" here at Duke. My books include Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (University of California Press, 2010) and The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer (Basic Books, 2018)

5 thoughts on “Was that an Apology?

  1. peter harvey

    Yesterday, l’Equipe published an interview with Zidane on the affair. He defends Blanc and thinks it would be tragic to dismiss him. Overall, he seems to think the issue is being blown out of proportion and takes a shot at those who reacted too quickly (like Thuram).

    Reply
  2. afrika

    How was it that the discussion of style of play end up becoming a question about the presence of “blacks” in French football? this is what i ask my self too… is it a personal initiative to suffocate talent and skills of young Black french men? While the french still staggers in the football, Le Blanc should focus on a more thoughtful approach on how to enrich the french team, aside of racist comments

    Reply
  3. Laurent Dubois Post author

    Dear Peter: Thanks for your comment. As you can see, I’m really torn about this, feeling so disappointed precisely because I think there is hope that football can present an alternative. In the French version of my article on the scandal, I do try to summon a bit of hope that football can once again take a role in showing the way. But that will depend on what the leadership actually does.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  4. peter harvey

    I really appreciate the blog and your remarks. Can you manage anything more than a french shrug at his point given the optimism you expressed just a month ago?
    “Yet Blanc’s approach also suggests that the French team, for all it’s struggles in the previous years, will also remain — at least potentially — a site through which an alternative vision of France will be articulated, as it long has been….. for now at least, the football pitch seems like it will remain a relatively isolated site of sanity in the midst of a distressing and at times mystifying social and political impasse. Still, better to find solace in football than nowhere at all.

    Reply
  5. Kiratiana

    I want to thank you for your incredible analysis of this issue. I recently did a presentation on my book, Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to Black Paris at the Alliance Francaise and several people asked me if there was racism in France. I could not bring myself to flat out say yes there is racism in France. But this recent scandal has proven that it is an issue. I wonder why the country appears to be falling in this abyss of flagrant racism? Why not? Why not 10 years ago? 20 years ago?

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