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The story of the 2006 World Cup has been the resurrection of France. After a lackluster performance in its first two games, the French team shocked the football watching world–otherwise known as “the world”–by upsetting Spain and then dethroning Brazil, the second time in three World Cups the French have knocked off the global kings of “the beautiful game.”
While hundreds of thousands of people celebrated on the Champs-Elysées following France’s stunning turn-around, not everyone was feeling the joy. Proud racist and leader of the ultra-right wing National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, could not resist defiling the moment. Le Pen decried France’s multi-ethnic team as unrepresentative of French society, saying that France “cannot recognize itself in the national side,” and “maybe the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of color and should have been a bit more careful.”
Le Pen and others of his ilk do not recognize themselves in a team whose leader is of Algerian descent–Zinedine Zidane–and whose most feared striker is black–Thierry Henry. Le Pen used to torture Algerians for the French military in the 1950s and it turns his stomach that his team reflects France’s (and Europe’s) colonial past, with players from Cameroon, Guadalupe, Senegal, Congo, Algeria, and Benin among other countries.
Le Pen’s efforts to use the pitch as a battleground for his Neanderthal views about immigration and Islam have not gone unanswered. After his latest comments, France midfielder Lilian Thuram said, “Clearly, he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn’t know anything about French history or society…. That’s pretty serious. He’s the type of person who’d turn on the television and see the American basketball team and wonder: ‘Hold on, there are black people playing for America? What’s going on?'”
Thuram went on to say, “When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. It doesn’t matter if we’re black or not, because we’re French. I’ve just got one thing to say to Jean Marie Le Pen. The French team are all very, very proud to be French. If he’s got a problem with us, that’s down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants.” In addition, the immensely talented Henry has started an antiracist campaign called Stand Up Speak Up. Henry pushed his sponsor Nike to produce black and white intertwined armbands that demonstrate a commitment against racism. So far, they have sold more than five million. “That’s important in making the very real point that racism is a problem for everyone, a collective ailment,” Henry said to Time Magazine. “It shows that people of all colors, even adversaries on the pitch, are banding together in this, because we’re all suffering from it together.”
Henry’s campaign has resonance because Le Pen does not have the market cornered on racism in the sport. So-called fans, throwing banana peels and peanuts at star players of African descent, have plagued European soccer this past season. For much of the World Cup, such assaults did not occur. But before the June 27th game against Spain, the French coach, Raymond Domenech, said Spanish fans were “making monkey chants” as the French team left their bus. The incident evoked memories of an outrageous racist diatribe against Thierry Henry delivered by Spanish coach Luis Aragones to “inspire” his team before a match against France a couple years ago. When Franch defeated Spain last week, it was more just desserts for Aragones and another bitter pill for Le Pen.
Thuram and Henry are continuing a proud tradition of recent years, as players from “Les Bleus,” as the national team is called, have consistently spoken out against those like Le Pen who cannot countenance a non-white French team. Le Pen made headlines before the 1998 World Cup for saying that France’s multi-ethnic team was “artificial,” and was mortified when Zidane and Henry did something no previous Frenchmen had accomplished-won the World Cup, a triumph that was widely celebrated as a victory for multiculturalism. While Le Pen was campaigning in the presidential elections of 2002, the French team issued a statement denouncing the politics of the National Front. Delivered by Ghanaian-born captain Marcel Desailly, the statement read: “The players in the French team, from diverse origins . . . are unanimous in condemning resurgent ideas of racism and exclusion.” Desailly’s statement further condemned “attitudes that endanger democracy and freedom as intolerable and indefensible, particularly in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural France.” Zidane amplified this message, calling for a huge vote against Le Pen.
It is paradoxical that a victory by France, a country with as grisly a colonial past as any European power, could be a cause for celebration by immigrants and fighters for social justice. But as last year’s “suburb” riots and mass youth demonstrations have shown, there is a battle over the future of French politics and by extension, the future of Europe. Anti-Arab and Moslem sentiment is by no means monopolized by Le Pen and his cronies on the far right. Whether or not they defeat Italy for the title, the astonishing success of France’s multi-ethnic team presents another vision for the future of the continent.
Dave Zirin is the author of “‘What’s My name Fool?’: Sports and Resistance in the United States.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Cox is an assistant History professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.