French Players and Migration

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In 1998, the French national football team won the World Cup.  At the time they were hailed for their multiculturalism, and how they represented a new France, where the population was assimilated and uniformly French.  Besides the national pride that swelled in France, there was significant focus on the ethnic makeup of the national team, which including several members who were not ethnically French. The squad is shown below (Also, the parent article is a interesting case on nationalism)1:

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Zinedine Zidane, for example, is a of Algerian (Kabyle) descent; despite growing up in his birthplace of Marseille in Southern France, Zidane was viewed as a “foreigner” by much of the French population.  However, after his memorable performance in the 1998 final, people began to view the football team as a sign of a cultural revolution about foreigners and immigrants in France:

And the icon of this revolution was the team’s center-midfielder Zinedine Zidane, hero of the championship match with two header goals against a supposedly unstoppable Brazilian side. Called “the flagbearer of a plural France” … Footage of him kissing the World Cup trophy and crying while singing the Marseillaise (the French national hymn), replayed for days on end afterward by the state media, sealed him permanently as a French national hero. These images served as the postcolonial equivalent of the black soldier saluting the French flag…a potent postimperial myth of France’s multiracial unity, glory, and destiny.2

In this sense, it seems clear that Zidane is representative of immigration in France and became a sign of successful assimilation into French society due to his heroic status.  However, it is difficult to separate the image of who Zidane is on a soccer field with who Zidane is as a person; on a soccer field, there is undoubtedly cooperation among all of the French players, united by a common goal and culture of winning.  Off of the soccer field, it is difficult to really tell if there is such a common culture among French citizens.  Further information about Zidane and his impact can be seen in an post about Zidane and the 1998 World Cup.  Zidane himself is far from outspoken, leaving questions about race to teammates such as the outspoken Lilian Thuram.

Thuram gained fame for his performance in the match against Croatia in the 1998 World Cup.  After France had conceded a goal, Thuram scored an equalizer and then a go-ahead goal, combining to give France the victory and Lilian Thuram the only two international goals of his career. The highlights of that game can be seen here (with French commentary)3:

These goals caused an outcry in the streets throughout France, symbolic of both the typically reserved French nationalism and the multiculturism of French society.  However, Thuram also noted the political molestation of the message sent by the World Cup, where the politicians implied that immigrants needed to enter into the set culture of French society, much as the football team had played as a French team with a French culture.  Thuram implied as much:

The team’s victory was ‘appropriated and abused,’ used to pass on a vision that Thuram found offensive: ‘Become a football player if you want to integrate yourself’…for Thuram, the reason for the outpouring of joy around the team was precisely because people felt liberated from the ‘shackle’ of a certain idea of integration… The promise put forth by the team, Thuram suggested, was precisely that it was possible, indeed valuable, to be a French person with a particular history and a particular background. 4

In this way the World Cup victory became supportive of a new France, a France where individuals could celebrate their own historical backgrounds; indeed, the World Cup gave many in French society new heroes to celebrate, players with backgrounds in North Africa and the Caribbean, representative of many of the immigrant groups in France.  In the cities, where many of the players grew up, immigrant groups had a newfound reason to feel like they were part of France, at once supporting the French team and becoming part of the French nationalism and pride that grew with each successive victory.

Overall, the French team became representative of movement in society in the way the team mirrored the new ethnic groups of French society.  The paths through society taken by the players were unique, but the common similarities among those of immigrant backgrounds—struggling with acceptance, finding a place in society—resonated with the French public, and especially with those who were of immigrant background themselves.  The pride of the French in their soccer team reflects the changing society and values of the French.  Thus, as the players migrate they correspond society’s migrations as well, and this is reflected in the changing pride of the French:

Like everything else, forms of patriotism change over time. Reasons for national pride are varied. When France won the World Cup in 1998, the French liked to point out the ethnic diversity of their team. Their main star, Zinedine Zidane, was of Algerian stock. Others had ancestral roots in various parts of Africa. The multi-ethnic nature of the 1998 champion was widely touted as a mark not of a long and often bloody colonial past but of national superiority born from the tolerance of the French Enlightenment and the fraternity of the French Revolution.5

Therefore, national pride embraces the players as signs of immigration and assimilation, and the signs they give as a united society.  The migration of the players helps the country of France see itself as whole, as they are symbolic of every person inside France.

  2. Carrard, Philippe. ‘L’Equipe de France du monde’: sport and national identity. French Cultural Studies Feb2002, Vol. 13 Issue 37, p65
  4. Dubois, Laurent. Soccer Empire. 255
  5. Ian Buruma. Europe’s soccer nationalism. The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.: Jul 2, 2008. pg. A.17

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