France is a bellwether for postcolonial anxieties and populist politics. Football is the stage wherein these anxieties and politics often play out.
In this blog Paul Silverstein, author of Postcolonial France: Race, Islam, and the Future of the Republic, considers how the social and cultural contours of the nation are represented during the 2018 World Cup.
Summertime in France tends to be hot – and not just in terms of degrees of Celsius. Of course, the occasional temperature heatwave (canicule) – famously in 2003 – does raise the question of national preparation and social protection, of the progressive neoliberal abandonment of the urban poor and elderly to the precarity of meteorological circumstance and unequal access to air conditioning. But the French summer also heats up in more metaphoric, if equally consequential, ways. State-mandated breaks from schoolyear demands and workday routines provide the occasion for pondering broader existential questions about individual futures and collective destinies. And more often than not, such public reflections tend to question the shifting meaning of Frenchness and the future of the Republic.
Summertime conflicts over the cultural and territorial contours of France are inevitably fraught, tense, even violent affairs. Recall the iconic storming of the Bastille, the July 1830 revolution, the June Days uprisings of 1848, the August 1944 rebellion against the Nazi occupation of Paris, the upheavals of May 1968, or today’s massive ongoing public workers strikes – all seasonal moments of desperation and hope where workers, students, the unemployed, and the otherwise disenfranchised sought to overturn the existing social and political order. These heated events have left a lasting legacy of armed struggle for liberty and equality which transcend metropolitan France’s hexagonal borders. For instance, the May 8, 1945 victory over Nazi Germany played out in colonial Sétif and Guelma, Algeria, as a set of nationalist demonstrations and subsequent inter-communal massacres – perhaps the first shots fired in the long war of African decolonisation. The famous 1956 Battle of Algiers began as a series of guerilla attacks on French military and civilian targets in response to the June 16 guillotining of two National Liberation Front (FLN) political prisoners. Algeria finally achieved its independence on July 3, 1962, but only for French President Charles de Gaulle to be nearly assassinated a month later by putschist settlers who felt that he had betrayed France’s national mission by signing the peace accords.
In spite of such territorial scission and subsequent concerted state efforts to minimise or even erase its violent colonial past, France has remained an indelibly postcolonial nation, the precise configurations of which are still hotly contested by those unwilling or unable to forget their colonial suffering. During the early 1980s, successive ‘hot summers’ (étés chauds) pitted multicultural youth on school holiday against the law enforcement officers in the working-class suburbs (les banlieues) of Lyon, throwing rocks and burning cars in protest against racism, police violence, and deportations. Deemed ‘riots’ (émeutes) by the national media, such demonstrations seemed to call into question the presumed unidirectional ‘integration’ (read assimilation) of those of North African and West African backgrounds into unmarked French belonging. While some right-wing pundits took these violent confrontations as a sign of the youth’s rejection of – or even hatred (haine) for – France, the uprisings themselves were actually a response to the repeated, exclusionary attacks on their peers and, if anything, they might be better viewed as a shrill demand for inclusion. Indeed, the summer violence of 1983 gave rise to the March for Equality and Against Racism and a veritable civil rights movement of young men and women of North African background (also known as ‘Beurs’) who called for the state to recognise their ‘right to (cultural) difference’ within their status as French citizens.
Ultimately, the French state incorporated a positive language of cultural diversity within official national narratives, if certainly ambivalently and not without ongoing contestation from the radical right (such as Le Pen’s Front National) which has continued to make political hay on anti-immigration and Islamophobic platforms. Increasingly, men and women of colour, by dint of their courageous efforts, have come to occupy the professional ranks of French society, sell out concert halls, achieve academic tenure, present on television shows, and even serve in high-profile governmental posts – although ongoing concerns over under-representation and accusations of tokenism are undeniable. Nonetheless, the state continues to regard young men and women of postcolonial (and particularly Islamic) background – especially those growing up in the banlieue public housing projects – as a ‘problem’ to be carefully managed, as alternately dangerous and vulnerable subjects. Young Muslim men (the iconic garçon arabe) are regularly portrayed as preternaturally violent, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic, seen to force young Muslim women to toe a conservative religious line or be subjected to sexual violence. High-profile secular groups like Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Doormats), which was formed by educated women of Islamic background, have arisen as spokeswomen for those banlieue girls living in fear or supposedly being brainwashed into espousing groups like ISIS. The 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris only concretized a long-standing public moral panic over the rise of an Islamist insurgency along the French urban periphery, justifying the state of emergency security and surveillance measures now incorporated into everyday policing.
Of particular concern in the management of the banlieue youth is their unstructured (summer) leisure time which, in the absence of state and parental controls, is feared to be usurped by petty delinquency, gang activity, or even jihad. Over the last several decades, municipal governments have partnered with local non-profits and corporate sponsors to offer summer camps to get kids off the streets and out of underground mosques. These camps often include holiday trips to the French countryside or seashore during which urban working-class kids are encouraged to internalise bourgeois dispositions and desires. Beaches in particular have proven to be far from neutral spaces for the performance of legitimate Frenchness. The infamous ‘burkini’ controversy of August 2016 along the Côte d’Azur involved local authorities over-stepping the formal nationwide ban on wearing a face-veil (niqab) in public spaces in an attempt to outlaw the modest styles of swimwear adopted by devout Muslim beachgoers. Following what Joan Wallach Scott has recently termed ‘sexularism’,[i] strong proponents of laïcité – including many mainstream French feminists – have equated sexual availability with gender freedom and have thus upheld the male gaze as the state’s legitimate vantage point. This amounts to a perversion of liberal rights into policed obligations, effectively resulting in a French rewrite of the US Constitution’s second amendment into ‘the duty to bare arms.’
Many summer camps unsurprisingly centre on organised sports, long the privileged state mechanism for transforming French boys into properly virile soldiers and workers. Granted, banlieue kids require little encouragement to play football, a sport long dominated by the children of miners and industrial labourers. But successive French governments have massively invested in sporting infrastructures and training methods precisely to discipline the next generation to play collectively for the glory of the nation. Such efforts reached their apogee in 1998 when the celebrated Black-Blanc-Beur (White-Black-Beur) team of Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, and Marcel Desailly (of Algerian, Antillean, and Ghanaian backgrounds, respectively) won the World Cup on home soil; and their nadir in 2010 when Les Bleus crashed out of the World Cup group stages in South Africa after the players staged a sit-in protesting the expulsion of Muslim-convert and Striker Nicolas Anelka for an altercation with the head coach. Throughout, right-wing politicians and pundits subjected the ethnic, racial, and religious composition of the national side to public debate, scrutinising players of colour for the enthusiasm with which they sing the Marseillaise or demonstrate their heartfelt patriotism with their unselfish footballing exertions. The media and French Football Federation seem to hold them to an impossibly high standard of professionalism, and attribute their occasional lapses (such as Zidane’s head-butt during the 2006 World Cup final match) to their banlieue upbringing and untamed (Muslim) masculinity. Ditto for French football supporters of colour whose ultimate loyalties are likewise questioned, most notably in the wake of a 2001 France-Algeria friendly – the first official match between senior sides since independence – when spectators hissed during the playing of the national hymn and a number of younger fans subsequently invaded the pitch carrying Algerian flags. Football in France comes off as anything but leisure playtime.
All of which makes it somewhat odd that the French team competing in this summer’s World Cup has (so far) solicited minimal to no national debate or existential self-scrutiny, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of the selected players come from postcolonial immigrant backgrounds and present as ‘black.’ Indeed, the primary worry seemed to be that the black players would be maltreated not by the French public but by Russian spectators, who themselves were racially typecast in the public debate as racists.[i] To a certain extent, the relative media silence on these issues may result from attention being drawn elsewhere, to the ongoing public workers strikes that have disrupted transportation and underlined the common predicament all face in navigating their daily lives under conditions of socioeconomic precarity. In this sense, it may testify to the French establishment’s slow, if reluctant, accommodation to being represented on the world stage by players of colour – arguably much like late imperial times, when footballers from the colonies starred on French international sides. More simply, the lack of soul-searching is also no doubt related to the youthfulness of the team (the second youngest team in the competition, alongside England) and hence the relatively low expectations for their success (in spite of their widely recognized individual talent). Maybe, for once, French audiences could simply enjoy the beautiful game without suffering through the agonies of taking every defeat as an inquest into the state of the nation.
But perhaps the apparent absence of a national footballing crisis masks a broader shift in the cultural contours of the national debate, from an obsession with preserving Frenchness as a singular ethno-racial identity to anxieties over the compatibility of certain forms and practices of Islam with liberal, cosmopolitan societies writ large. In an effort to fight ‘radicalisation’ (emblematised by the French nationals who joined ISIS as fighters or spouses), the French state has repeatedly sought to institutionalise a moderate ‘French Islam’ through fostering representative institutions and, under President Emmanuel Macron, proposing domestic training centres for imams and funding streams for mosque construction[i] – all in potential violation of article 2 of the 1905 law concerning the separation of Church from State which states that ‘the Republic does not recognize, pay, or subsidize any religious faith [culte].’[ii] This past April former President Nicolas Sarkozy – who had created the controversial French Council of the Muslim Faith as an elected spokesbody for French Islam – alongside three former prime ministers and over 250 other public figures published a manifesto denouncing Muslim anti-Semitism and demanding that particular Qur’anic verses ‘calling for the murder and punishment of Jews, Christians, and unbelievers be rendered obsolete by theological authorities’ – what was taken to be a proposal for the revision of the sacred text.[iii]
These efforts to domesticate French Islam have spilled over onto the football pitch. Seven of the current 23-player squad are of Islamic family background or practicing Muslims, including notably Paul Pogba who has publicly and proudly shared videos of his recent pilgrimage (umrah) to Mecca and Medina.[iv] (In parallel, a number of players, including Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, are equally devout Catholics, and Blaise Matuidi an evangelical Christian.[v]) Much like in the various veil and ‘burkini’ controversies, during the build-up to the present World Cup the French media focused on whether players’ religious obligations – and particularly their Ramadan fasting – would interfere with their citizenly duties: in this case, their training regimen and preliminary matches. Indeed, forward Nabil Fekir felt compelled to publicly reassure the anxious public that none of his Muslim teammates were actually going to fast during the tournament – something permissible in most theological interpretations given that they would be travelling.[vi]
Fekir was only three players of North African family heritage who were selected for the tournament (including young phenomenon Kylian Mbappé whose mother was an Algerian team handball competitor), relatively under-represented compared to the number of players of West African or Antillean descent. Indeed, with the notable exception of Zidane, since decolonisation there have been very few Maghrebi-French players capped for Les Bleus and even fewer of Algerian background.[vii] Talented young French-born players like Riyad Mahrez have elected to play for their parents’ home countries rather than France out of a variety of personal and professional considerations. Arguably France’s best striker, Karim Benzema, was left at home by head coach Didier Deschamps, following Benzema’s alleged solicitation of an underage prostitute and blackmailing of teammate Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape. Benzema accused Deschamps of ceding to racist political pressure, while Deschamps underlined the necessity of team ‘harmony.’[viii] The same justifications have been deployed over the years to sideline other talented players with a reputation of unprofessional conduct, including Maghrebi-French stars Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri, as well as Muslim convert Franck Ribéry, all also involved in sex scandals. They would have no place in a team carefully crafted to challenge for the World Cup without challenging middle-class sensibilities.
In the process, enforced evaluative criteria like ‘professionalism,’ ‘harmony,’ and ‘team unity’ risk becoming new modes of exclusion, new forms of racism and Islamophobia that no longer have to speak with the vocabulary of race and religion. They are also the emergent language of neoliberal managerialism, reminding us that football and the nation are ultimately both businesses to be efficiently organised and profitably directed, free from potential disruption. Summer leisure time in the form of school holidays and paid vacations has shifted from an instrument of state paternalism to an opportunity to increase productivity, promote consumption, encourage entrepreneurialism, and provide distraction. The World Cup certainly offers ample occasion for all the above. But summertime activities never prove to be as enticing or convenient as advertised, and the scale of the World Cup is simply too large to be completely controlled. Their consumers are also embodied social persons who, in these moments of downtime, go on strike to protect their precarious individual and collective futures, who feel in the heightened, if fleeting, suffering and euphoria of the World Cup an inkling of what it means to live together differently. The summer heat can burn skin and cars, but it can sometimes also spur people to work towards building caring communities within a proudly postcolonial nation within a truly global world.
Paul Silverstein is Professor of Anthropology at Reed College, Oregon, USA. He is author of Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race and Nation (Indiana UP, 2004). He writes on identity politics, postcoloniality, and diasporic popular culture in France and North Africa.
Postcolonial France: Race, Islam, and the Future of the Republic is available from Pluto Press.
[i] ‘Les Français s’inquiètent du racisme en Russie,’ Sport24, Le Figaro, April 22, 2018. http://sport24.lefigaro.fr/football/coupe-du-monde/russie-2018/Fil-info/les-francais-s-inquietent-du-racisme-en-russie-906064
[ii] Joan Wallach Scott, Sex and Secularism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
[iii] Karina Piser, ‘A New Plan to Create an ‘Islam of France’,’ The Atlantic, March 29, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/islam-france-macron/556604/
[iv] ‘Manifeste ‘contre le nouvel antisémitisme’,’ Le Parisien, April 21, 2018. http://www.leparisien.fr/societe/manifeste-contre-le-nouvel-antisemitisme-21-04-2018-7676787.php
[v] BethAnn McKernan, ‘World’s Most Expensive Footballer Paul Pogba Says Mecca ‘Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen’ on Visit to Holy City,’ The Independent, May 29, 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/paul-pogba-mecca-ramadan-manchester-united-hajj-umrah-instagram-a7761191.html
[vi] Romain Miwen, ‘Footballeurs, français, blancs et catholiques: le surprenant avènement,’ Nouvelles de France, July 8, 2016. https://www.ndf.fr/poing-de-vue/08-07-2016/footballeurs-francais-blancs-et-catholiques-le-surprenant-avenement/
[vii] Romain Métairie, ‘Coupe du monde: ‘Aucun joueur ne fait le ramadan’ chez les Bleus, selon Fekir,’ Le Parisien, May 25, 2018. http://www.leparisien.fr/sports/football/coupe-du-monde/coupe-du-monde-aucun-joueur-ne-fait-le-ramadan-chez-les-bleus-25-05-2018-7735614.php
[viii] Erwan Le Duc, ‘Emmanuel Blanchard: ‘La France black-blanc-beur de 1998 est un mythe’,’ Le Monde, June 1, 2016.
[ix] Vincent Bregevin, ‘Bleus: Si Deschamps se passe de Benzema, ‘c’est pour le bien de l’équipe’,’ Eurosport, May 18, 2017. https://www.eurosport.fr/football/matches-amicaux/2016/bleus-si-deschamps-se-passe-de-benzema-c-est-pour-le-bien-de-l-equipe_sto6170635/story.shtml