French Quota Flap Is About More Than Soccer

The recent scandal over proposals to limit the number of black and Arab players in French soccer has blown over, but it reflects the growing xenophobia and racism fed by the political right, says this French politician.

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Last month the French Football Federation buried a scandal over racial quotas with a light reprimand of the man who heads the national training program for soccer. The outcome was not a surprise: The FFF investigated itself after a website leaked a discussion about limiting black and Arab youngsters to 30 percent of the slots in the program.

What a change from July 12, 1998, when France won the World Cup with a multiethnic team. Riding a wave of national euphoria reminiscent of the end of World War II, a giant portrait of soccer star Zinédine Zidane floated over the Champs-Élysées. Unself-consciously, the nation proclaimed, "Zidane for president." At least symbolically, France embraced a Frenchman of North African origin -- and a soccer player at that -- as the No. 1 man in the country.

In 1998 the French media talked about a country reconciled with its multiracial population, a France that was a mirror image of its soccer team: "Black, blanc, beur (a common term for immigrants from North Africa)." In 2011 the French media talk about a divided country, at war with itself, focused on the situation in its violent suburban ghettos. What has happened in just 13 years?

In truth, a lot, and not just the rise of "La Roja," Spain's national soccer team, now crowned European and World Cup champions. The first important change is the general social and economic decline. It is characterized by a France that strains more than ever to embrace global movements, especially globalization, which has both positive and negative effects.

Current economic policies have deliberately cut off France from this reality, just as the world economy's center of gravity is shifting to Brazil, China and India. Jobs in many of our regions are relocating abroad every day because France did not anticipate globalization by seizing on new sectors of activity, notably innovation.

Nor did it prepare new generations to be more open to the world without condescension or attempting to colonize it intellectually. Globalization creates social misery mindlessly, but even more so in countries that resist massively without even trying to understand it or to benefit by using their inherent cultural advantages.

We've known for a long time that higher unemployment feeds social tensions. It takes very little to transform these tensions into ethnic or racial conflicts, especially with television daily trumpeting the menace of emerging nations populated with "nouveau riche" nonwhite people who have no pity for a dying "old Europe." Economic racism is flagrant and feeds ordinary racism more easily as social misery touches the middle classes: "We're losing jobs to foreign countries, and foreigners in France are benefiting more than native Frenchmen."

No part of Europe has escaped the rise in racial tensions. One explanation is increasing unemployment in Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, France and elsewhere. But it's an illusion to blame unemployment as the only explanation for rampant racism in the heart of Europe. To believe so would absolve France for failing to admit its disastrous role in the slave trade. Such belief would also mean forgiving Italy and Spain for failing to confront the frequent racist taunts directed at soccer players of African descent.

The second big change in the last decade is the rise of right-wing politics: President Nicolas Sarkozy cultivates a paradoxical role. He has named more minorities than any previous president to cabinet posts. The most symbolic appointment was Rachida Dati (a French Arab) as minister of justice, the third most important cabinet post.

And yet Sarkozy is also the president who has reinforced social and identity divisions in French society. He has divided in order to better control, to appear later as the unifier of the country at a time when the extreme-rightist National Front is making rapid gains.

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