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.
During his 2007 presidential campaign, Sarkozy spoke of "a France that gets up early and a France that gets up late," implying that the slackers were benefiting from the country's generous social system, and more often than not that they were of different cultures than "the real French." As interior minister in 2005, he talked of cleaning the ghettos of "scum" by using high-pressure hoses. Not surprisingly, the social and economic crises have hardened this xenophobia.
It's no surprise that the national soccer team, the symbol of the nation, couldn't escape this rising tide. What university would want to limit the number of blacks on its basketball team to 30 percent? Yet that's the decision the French Football Federation wanted to take — a decision disconnected from any sports fundamental and more concerned about protecting white players.
Just having 11 soccer geniuses on the field is not enough to win. You need a strategy for victory. Today there is no longer any collective ambition to forge a common destiny in France. The FFF has lost its way in sports. The elite of French soccer think not of the sport but of their own interests, the interests of "the family," as they call one another. In fact, they have joined the same dysfunctional self-interest that plagues our elites, especially in politics.
In truth, the scandal has nothing to do with sports. The real scandal is that soccer has become another ghetto: The majority of kids who want to become players come from poor communities — where most of the people are immigrants. Soccer is a schoolyard sport that costs nothing, which is why the masses have embraced it. But now it is becoming the sport of the wannabe "nouveau riche." Parents in affluent neighborhoods prefer to see their kids playing tennis or rugby, performing on tatamis or in gyms rather than in soccer stadiums.
French society has never been so divided. Soccer once had the capacity to bring the nation together. Now I am convinced that Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right, would like to see herself as the team selector for the country, committed to the defense of "white France."
Alain Dolium is a French entrepreneur and a member of the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem), a centrist political party.