Foreign Policy: The Racial Repercussions of France's World Cup Failure
Criticism that used to be limited to the far right has moved into the political mainstream after black players led a protest.
Americans cannot easily imagine the consequences of losing in the World Cup. Most of us were happy that the U.S. team managed to get past the group stage into the second round, even though we lost to Ghana. But it's different for big soccer powers that are accustomed to winning. One of the ugliest aftermaths has occured in France, whose team came home early after failing to get out of the group stage. Turmoil on the team, lack of respect for the coach and the racial repercussions for a mostly-black team are well chronicled in a piece in our sister publication, Foreign Policy.
The recent uproar began after the entire French team refused to attend a training session following the expulsion of a teammate. The player in question, Nicolas Anelka, had shouted obscenities at the coach, Raymond Domenech, during the halftime of France's 0-2 pasting by Mexico on June 17. When the French media began calling this action a "strike" and a "mutiny," the escalation of the incident into a crisis took on a political dimension that is best explained as post-colonial drama, as indispensable black talent confronted the white authority figure whose job it was to keep them under control.
The denigration of France's North and sub-Saharan African athletes has been a favorite theme of the French extreme right for years. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic founder of the racist Front National, declared in 1996 that the French national soccer team was unacceptable on patriotic grounds because of the number of "foreigners" -- i.e., nonwhite citizens -- who had been selected to represent France. Some players' refusal to sing the national anthem became a sore point that persists to this day.
But after the mostly black French soccer team's defiance of its white leaders in South Africa, Le Pen's racist critique of multiracial sport has entered the French political mainstream with a vengeance. It was the French minister of health and sports, Roselyne Bachelot -- hardly a fringe figure -- who recently called the older players "gang leaders" who were tyrannizing "frightened boys" on the national squad. During the 1990s, it was only the French extreme right that ridiculed the idea that multiracial sport could facilitate racial integration in France. Now the derision directed against the indiscipline of a "black" team and the implicit failure of sport's integrative role in French society rains down from across the political spectrum.