On March 29th, 2016, France played Russia in the first football match to take place in the Stade de France since the terrorist attacks on November 13th. Before the game, the media coverage centered as much on the increased security presence as on the game itself. Commentators wondered: would fans feel safe returning to the stadium? Would the stadium be full? Would the atmosphere be lively or sober? The players were attuned to the extraordinary circumstances as well: speaking about returning to the site of the attacks, French striker Olivier Giroud said that “we are human beings before being sportsmen…It will obviously affect us to go there.” Defender Christophe Jallet echoed these thoughts, telling Goal.com that “we were affected by [the events]…it will be a special moment that will remind us of the sadness of that day. It’s up to us to perform and move on to football.” Jallet equally noted that living through the events of November 13th gave the team added inspiration and desire, saying that experiencing such an event “unites the group.”
To secure the stadium, a second security check was implemented 150 meters away from the stadium where bags, tickets, and IDs were checked. This process was then repeated upon arrival at the gates of the stadium. There were also snipers positioned around the corners of the stadium and extra police and security officers. However, this did not seem to affect the atmosphere of the game, especially after N’Golo Kanté opened the scoring for France in the 7th minute of play. France would go on to win the game 4-2, displaying an incredible attacking verve much to the delight of the 65,000 fans in the stadium. Indeed, the storyline of the match was that the French team treated the fans to a spectacle and played with pleasure. French newspaper Le Monde called the match an “offensive festival” and The Guardian wrote that they played “outstanding, liberating, beautiful attacking football.” Perhaps the most interesting choice of words came from Maxifoot, which wrote “Quel régal” and L’Équipe, which put a picture of Les Bleus on the cover with the caption “Les Bleus Régalent.” In French, the verb “régaler” can mean to offer someone a pleasure, to charm, or to treat someone. There is also a link with food, such as offering someone a sumptuous meal. In this sense then, the French team was seen as offering a sense of pleasure, or serving up a feast for the spectators to savor on the night.
Interestingly, this emphasis on pleasure in the wake of terror is the same narrative that was focused upon after November 13th. The places ISIS had targeted – a concert hall, a sidewalk café, and the Stade de France – were all seen as places of leisure and pleasure. The French concentrated on this afterwards, feeling that the attacks were a threat on their very way of life; a threat to listening to live music, or having a glass of wine on the patio, or watching a football match. Charlie Hebdo hit upon this with their ensuing cover – a drawing of a Frenchman chugging champagne and dancing, while at the same time the champagne was leaving his body via bullet holes. The accompanying caption, “They have guns…Fuck them! We have champagne!” characterized the divide perfectly. The terrorists represented a closed minded worldview void of pleasure, whereas the French knew how to relax, laugh, and amuse themselves.
A storyline began to emerge, showing that perhaps that way to respond to the terrorists was not by violence, or fear, but by pursuing pleasure in one’s life. What better expression of this than a game of football? It’s not called “the beautiful game” for nothing, after all. And, the storyline went, who better to embody this ideal than the French national team, a team historically made up of many races and religions due to France’s colonial past (the team that defeated Russia featured players of Senegalese, Malian, Guadeloupian, Martiniquan, Guinean, and Romani origin)? Didn’t their success prove that multiculturalism could work, in response to the closed minded ideology of ISIS? In fact, the French team has been portrayed before as a rebuttal to conservative, racist, ideology, most notably in 1998 when France’s World Cup winning squad was dubbed the “Black-Blanc-Beur” team due to its featuring a mix of black, white, and Arab players. More recently in 2013, when France defeated Ukraine 3-0 in order to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, the French defender Mamadou Sakho (a French Muslim born to Senegalese parents) said, “The players in the squad represent everyone in France, the multicultural society of France. When we represent France we know we are playing for the multicultural French nation. We love France and everything that is France…the cultural mix of France is represented in that squad and we are determined to win the hearts of the fans by fighting really hard for the shirt.” In this crucial game, where France had to win by a margin of three goals in order to qualify, Sakho had scored the first and third goals while Karim Benzema, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, had scored the second.
Writing about Sakho’s words in his article on the French team, Tony Karon notes that Sakho’s “embrace of a multicultural French coexistence is anathema to ISIS.” Indeed, in ISIS’ worldview there is no possibility for peaceful coexistence among Muslims and practitioners of other religions, and so Sakho’s statement could be seen as a direct repudiation of ISIS’ aims. Karon continues to develop this idea by writing about the Stade de France, the French team’s home stadium. Karon writes that it was no an accident that ISIS chose to target the Stade de France because “for ISIS, there could be no symbolically richer target in France than the national football team, the prime manifestation of 21st-century Convivencia, the peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians.” In Karon’s view, every time the French football team takes the field it is a direct expression of everything ISIS is against, as ISIS wants to “polarize Western societies, eliminating the space in which people of different religions, or of no religion, coexist in a common and equal civic identity.” Since the French team is made up of many Muslims, along with those who practice other religions, it makes them a logical target for ISIS.
Of course, it’s easy to get carried away when thinking about how sport can influence and/or indicate social change. It can happen, surely, but sport can also deceive us, inciting us to craft narratives that might be true for the 90 minutes of a soccer game, but not for the overall society. Is France more integrated in 2016 than in 1998? Has that much really changed?
The day after the cover of L’Équipe that showed the French team with the caption “Les Bleus Régalent,” they had the team on the cover again, this time with French flags in the background and a new caption – “Communion.” The text below the caption said, “Les Bleus have re-conquered a public that no longer wants Karim Benzema. Why break the spell?” The message was clear. In the French squad of 2016, there was no place for Benzema.
And indeed, on April 14th the French-Algerian football player Karim Benzema published a message on his Twitter account: “I want to thank you for your support and all your messages which touch me. My family, my friends, my club and you all.” The day before, Benzema had been informed that he would not be selected to play for France at this summer’s European Championships. It was a curious position for him to be in, as only one-year prior he had captained France for the first time in a friendly match against Brazil. He had also been playing well, scoring a goal against Barcelona two weeks before in “El Clasico,” ranking 3rd in La Liga with 22 goals, and being named the 20th best player in the world for 2015 (only one other French player was named ahead of him). Nevertheless, he had become embroiled in a legal affair in which he was accused of aiding in a blackmail scheme against one of his former French teammates. While he has not been proven guilty, and was still playing for his club Real Madrid at the time of the decision, the Fédération Football Française (FFF) decided that he did not have the ability “to work with a sense of unity, in and around the group” and thus could not be selected for the team. They also remarked that “the exemplarity and the preservation of the group are taken into account by the selection team of the Fédération,” all while noting that “from a legal point of view, there is no obstacle preventing him (Benzema) from being selected.” In other words, while from a legal and sporting point of view Benzema could certainly be on the team, from the moralistic point of view of the FFF he could not be. The consensus within France was similar to the view of the FFF, as a recent poll in L’Équipe revealed that 73% of the population did not wish to see him in the team.
About one month later, on May 12th, Didier Deschamps announced the 23 players that would participate in this summer’s European championships. This time, the big question was whether Hatem Ben Arfa would be included in the squad. Ben Arfa, while not at Benzema’s level, has had a brilliant season and a career resurgence this year in Ligue 1 with Nice. He has scored 17 goals and provided 6 assists, and is widely regarded as the most talented French player in the French league. Like Benzema, he has origins in North Africa, but in Tunisia as opposed to Algeria. Also like Benzema, he was ultimately not chosen for the French team. However, this time the criteria was said to be sporting, although Ben Arfa has had disciplinary problems in the past. The French public also seemed to be on Ben Arfa’s side, in contrast to Benzema, with 55.5% of the readers of French newspaper Le Monde selecting him in their “imaginary” French team. In the end, Deschamps decided that the French team would be without both Benzema and Ben Arfa this summer, and thus without a player of Arab origin in the team. For a nation with Arabs as its second most recognized ethnic group (it’s difficult to provide exact figures as France does not take census data based on race/ethnicity), this is a surprising statistic. It is also in contrast to past French teams, which have often included a mix of whites, blacks, and Arabs.
On May 23th, however, the situation changed again as due to injury Deschamps called up Adil Rami, a Frenchman of Moroccan origin. Rami looks set to stay in the team for the tournament, and thus he will be the only Arab player in the French squad this summer. Perhaps a story could be spun about this 2016 incarnation of the French team being like the ’98 “Black-Blanc-Beur” team. But really, when the only Arab player on the team is there because of injury (he hadn’t even been included on the stand-by list), and when two French stars (Benzema and Ben Arfa) have been excluded, it seems a little far fetched. Can we really praise this team, then, as a model of 21st century France? It is a team that is not so much “Black-Blanc-Beur” as it is “Black-Blanc.” Is this really a rebuke to ISIS? If we examine ISIS more closely, and in particular the November 13th attacks, it is clear that the terrorists were not just “radical Islamists,” but also Arabs. In fact, of the seven terrorists that carried out the attacks on the Bataclan, the Stade de France, and the Comptoir Voltaire, and the three that were killed a few days later in Saint Denis, there was not a single black or white Muslim. Instead, they were all Arabs, six of whom were French, two of whom were Belgian, and two of whom were Iraqi. If we accept the thesis that the French terrorists joined ISIS because they felt rejected by French society, then this portrait begins to make more sense. France has long been seen as accepting of blacks, much more so than the United States. Many African-American intellectuals, such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright even moved to France because they felt more accepted there than in the USA. A telling quote from Baldwin, as related by Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books Blog, reveals his experience of racism in French society: “With a ‘generous smile’, Baldwin’s friends reassured him that he was different from the Arabs: ‘Le noir américain est très évolué, voyons!’ [Come on now – the black American is very evolved!] He found the response perplexing, given what he knew of French views about the United States, so he asked a ‘very cunning question’:
If so crude a nation as the United States could produce so gloriously civilised a creature as myself, how was it that the French, armed with centuries of civilised grace, had been unable to civilise the Arab?
The response was breathtakingly simple: ‘The Arabs did not wish to be civilised.”
While historically blacks have been relatively well integrated into French society, it has been more difficult for Arabs. Perhaps then, the 2016 French football team is a reflection of the nation, not representative statistically of its diversity, but of its attitude and prejudices. One wonders if Benzema and Ben Arfa would have been selected had they been white or black. If you ask Benzema, the answer is yes. Speaking to SoFoot in 2011, Benzema said “Basically, if I score, I’m French. And if I don’t score or there are problems, I’m Arab.” More recently, he has accused Didier Deschamps of “bowing to racists” in leaving him out of the 2016 squad. Would Benzema, certainly the best French striker in the world today, have been given more slack for his legal troubles, were he black or white? Probably, but he still might not have been selected. It’s important to remember that white French stars have been left off of teams before, such as Eric Cantona in Euro ’96. Would Ben Arfa have been given more of a chance to make the team? Once again, it’s unclear. While he has impressed this year, he’s also been playing in Ligue 1, which is much weaker than the English, Spanish, German, and Italian leagues. When he did play in England a few years ago, he was nowhere near the same player. While one can look for hidden motivations as to their omittance, and certainly make a strong case based on their ethnicities playing a role, it is impossible to say that this is the main reason.
Beyond the cases of Benzema and Ben Arfa, one wonders why there are only two Arab candidates for the French team. What has happened to all the players of Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian origin? Where is, for example, Riyad Mahrez, the PFA player of the year? Like many other recent players, he is playing for Algeria, the nation he feels more connected to, as opposed to the nation of his birth.
In 2009, a rule change that had been proposed by the Algerian Football Association allowed for players who had represented one country at youth level to switch to another country at the senior level. This meant that a player could theoretically represent France at the youth level, say, the U-20 or U-21 team, and then switch to Algeria and play for the senior team. In the past, once a player represented a country at youth level, he was tied to that country for life. This has opened the floodgates in terms of players switching allegiances, particularly for French born players switching to African countries. Joshua Robinson’s article about the World Cup and citizenship tells us that of Algeria’s 23-player squad for the 2010 World Cup, 17 were born in France. Half of these players had represented France at the youth level, and would have thus been unable to switch to Algeria before the 2009 rule change. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Algeria qualified for its first World Cup in 2010 in 24 years. In 2014, they qualified again and even progressed to the second round. This is in contrast to France’s 2010 World Cup team, which crashed out in the group stages.
Now it is July 1st and the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 have been set. France has performed impressively, winning Group A and defeating the Republic of Ireland in their first knockout game. Their opening game against Romania was particularly outstanding, as Dimitri Payet scored the winner with a beautiful left footed shot into the top corner in the 89th minute. The game was made all the more memorable as it inaugurated the tournament at the Stade de France, a stadium that serves as “the theatre for history unresolved, unending,” as Laurent Dubois writes in his brilliant essay on the stadium. Here, he isn’t just talking about soccer history, but the history of a nation. In 1998, the stadium was christened in the World Cup Final as a space where “in one goal by one person, two cultures became one.” These are the words of Zinedine Zidane, speaking in reference to his game-winning goal that united Arab and French culture. In 2001, these same cultures were divided, as a friendly match between France and Algeria was cancelled mid match as Algerian fans ran onto the pitch carrying Algerian flags. In 2015, there were the terrorist attacks. And in 2016? France faces Iceland tomorrow, their next step towards the final on July 10th in the Stade de France.