French European Soccer Nationalism Transcends Xenophobia, at Least for the Moment

Impressive far-right anti-immigration electoral gains caused French President Emmanuel Macron to dissolve the French National Assembly and call for snap legislative elections. But on the soccer pitch, all right-wing talk of “invading hordes” disappeared as French fans cheered on their national team led by players of foreign origin in the quadrennial European soccer tournament. Successful French soccer results seem to transcend political ethnocentrism, at least for the moment.

Politically, the far-right RN (National Rally) French populist party did extremely well in elections for the European Parliament winning 31 percent of the votes. Following that, in the June 30 first round of parliamentary elections, the RN won about 33 percent of the vote, well ahead of the left’s 28 percent and Macron’s party’s 20 percent. And the anti-immigration party is projected by Reuters to win 235 to 265 seats in the National Assembly in the upcoming second round vote on July 7, a huge jump from its current 88, and potentially the first time the far-right would be elected to power in France.

But the political success of the far-right anti-immigrant RN has not been reflected on the soccer pitch. The French soccer team, cheered on by the entire nation, has reached the quarter finals of the European Championships. “Invading hordes”? Fifteen players of foreign origin are on the official French roster of twenty-three players. Of the eleven on the starting team, eight are of foreign origin.

The team’s star and captain, and recognized as one of the world’s best players is Kylian Mbappé. His father is from the Cameroonian island of Djébalè and his mother is of Algerian Kabyle origin.  Mbappé’s 55’ penalty kick against Poland saved France from an embarrassing defeat in an early round match.

Off the field, Mbappé and a young leader of the RN, Jordan Bardella, a potential future prime minister and himself the child of Italian immigrants, have skirmished. Mbappé had encouraged young people to vote, implying they should reject right-wing extremes. “I see extremists at the gate of power,” he said. “Young people who have the chance to choose the future of the country should vote.”

In response, Bardella declared, “I have a lot of respect for our footballers, whether Marcus Thuram or Kylian Mbappé, who are icons of football and icons for youth … But we must respect the French, we must respect everyone’s vote.”

Despite referring to Mbappé and Thuram as “icons,” Bardella’s anti-immigrant position is evident. He told a group in March; “It is quite clear these elections [for the European Parliament] on June 9 are a referendum against being submerged by migrants,” he said at the party’s first campaign rally. “It is up to the French people to decide who is allowed to enter the country and who is not. With us [RN] France will protect its borders,” he confirmed to the cheering crowd.

(Jeune Afrique reported that Bardella’s great grandfather was an immigrant worker from Algeria, a fact that remains taboo in the RN, previously called the Front National party started by the racist and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen and now led by his daughter Marine Le Pen. Bardella is her protégé.)

What did Bardella mean by “respect the French”? “submerged by migrants,”? “protect its borders”? On the field, the French national team is downright multinational. The goalkeeper, Bruce Samba, was born in the Republic of Congo. N’Golo Kanté, considered one of the best midfielders of his generation, has Malian parents. Another stalwart, Eduardo Celmi Camavinga, was born in Angola. Dayot Upamecano’s great grandfather was king of a village in Guinea-Bissau where his parents are from. Ferland Mendy is of Senegalese and Bissau-Guinean descent. Jules Koundé has French and Beninese nationality   Aurelian Tchouameni is of Cameroonian descent. Youssaf Fofana has French and Malian citizenship. Randal Kolo Muani’s parents were born in KinshasaDemocratic Republic of Congo. He holds both French and Congolese nationalities. Marcus Thuram was born in Italy. Bradley Barcola holds French and Togolese citizenship.

So while the far-right continues to progress electorally, the national soccer team, Les Bleus, continues its excellence with a highly diverse roster. As the Economist noted of the team’s recent successes: “The team has reached the final of the World Cup and European Championships in three of the past four tournaments; indeed, in the 13 most recent editions of those competitions, France have reached the final six times. No other European team can boast such an impressive record in the same period.”

The successful French team is made up of legatees of French colonialism whom the far-right refuses to accept as integrated fully into France. RN leader Marine Le Pen has gone so far as to propose abolishing double nationality. Bardella has been more circumspect, saying that in a RN government only certain strategic positions would be limited to French citizens and French nationals. But still, the RN’s position of “France for the French” is quite clear.

Citizenship and double nationality are never simple. In the landmark 1950’s case of Nottebohm, the International Court of Justice famously defined nationality as a legal bond between a person and a state “having as its basis a social fact of attachment, a genuine connection of existence, interests and sentiments, together with the existence of reciprocal rights and duties.” The key is “a social fact of attachment.” The multinational French team is being cheered on by French soccer fans, including, we assume, those who voted for the RN in the last elections as having “a social fact of attachment.” For the fans, the multinational players are French.

Or are they?

Two soccer experts familiar with France explained to me the dissonance of those voting right wing while supporting the national team of “foreigners.” They used the example of the tennis great Yannick Noah, whose father was from Cameroon. When Noah won the French Open in 1983, the first Frenchman to win Roland Garros in thirty-seven years, he was treated as a national hero. He was French. When he lost matches, he was referred to as “the Cameroonian.” For the experts, French ethnocentrism disappears for sports winners.

So while watching the loyal French fans cheer their team in the European Championships, one interrogates the fans’ cries of, “Allez Les Bleus.” Are all fans, including RN supporters, truly behind Les Bleus as really French? It is obvious watching the French fans that France is united behind the team and that all the players are considered French, as long as the team keeps winning.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.