The French soccer team's disaster in South Africa has exposed the superficiality of European racial integration -- and now only Germany can save France from tearing itself apart.
In August 1936, shortly after African-American track star Jesse Owens won a sensational four gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games, the editor of France’s leading sports magazine L’Auto called upon French colonial authorities to find and recruit athletically talented black Africans who would be able to "represent the French race in a dignified manner" at international competitions. French runners and throwers had cut a poor figure in Berlin, and their failures before the eyes of the world were regarded as a national humiliation for France.
Accordingly, on Dec. 3, 1937, a search party sponsored by the magazine sailed from Bordeaux on a mission to study the athletic potential of the inhabitants of French West Africa. These sports missionaries eventually arrived in Senegal and were received by the highest colonial officials.
The result of this talent search was the sobering discovery that the explorers had completely misunderstood the relationship between sport and their colonial subjects. The Africans, unlike their African-American counterparts, showed little aptitude for sport. On the contrary, these impoverished and undernourished people needed sport as a therapy to restore their health. The search for children who might be future athletes was abandoned.
Half a century later, racial sensibilities have evolved, but European agents and coaches are still on the lookout for black talent to make them rich. And as the majority-African roster that France fielded at this year’s World Cup attests, many have succeeded. But after a lackluster performance that saw the French squad sent home after the first round amid a swirl of scandals and accusations, the complicated relationship between race and sports has re-emerged in the public discourse in a very ugly way.
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.
Never mind that Domenech is universally thought of as an incompetent clown. The scandal’s psychopolitical shock produced an extraordinary and almost unanimous chorus of criticism and abuse from the entire French political class. "Is this going to tarnish the image of France?" asked Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. "How are young people going to respect their professors when they see Anelka insulting his trainer?" asked Minister for Higher Education Valérie Pécresse.
The reactions in the French media have been even worse, combining colonial paternalism and angry condemnation. The players have been vilified as "gangsters," "scum," "hooligans," and "little shitheads from the projects." President Nicolas Sarkozy has framed the breakdown of team discipline as a national crisis and called for a board of inquiry. When star player Thierry Henry returned to France following the team’s meltdown in South Africa, Sarkozy postponed a preparatory meeting for the G-20 summit in Toronto to grant Henry an hour of his time at the Élysée.
Sarkozy’s opponents have turned the scandal back on him, blaming the team’s performance on his alleged Americanization of French society. "The French team," left-wing National Assembly Minister Jérôme Cahuzac, declared, "has been taken over by an ethos Sarkozy has promoted: individualism, egotism, everyone for himself, and the only way to measure people’s success is the check that comes at the end of the month." It was a short step from capitalist egocentricity to the vulgar "bling-bling" of the immigrant ghettos that had now contaminated the French national team. Former prime minister and Sarkozy rival Dominique de Villepin put it most clearly, saying: "I do not want France to resemble our football team."
That the French national team has become a symbol of society’s divisions is particularly unfortunate, given that in 1998, France’s World Cup winning side was eulogized as the fulfillment of the official French policy of racial and ethnic integration. Zinedine Zidane, its outstanding player and the son of Algerian parents, played star roles both as an athlete and as a model citizen who seemed to incarnate the success of the French model of ethnic integration. This doctrine discourages multiculturalism in favor of the doctrine that skin color and ethnicity have nothing to do with being a French citizen. Paradoxical as it may seem, the triumph of these "black-blanc-beur" — black, white, and North African athletes — was hailed as a sign that French society was immune to multicultural divisions. The resulting national euphoria was embraced as a welcome respite from the country’s persisting anxieties about the social and cultural consequences of large-scale immigration and the spread of Muslim populations throughout Western Europe.
The current World Cup debacle has undone the utopian fantasies of 1998 in a spectacular fashion. For Sarkozy, the unseemly behavior of these racially marginal Frenchmen must have brought back traumatic memories of the tremendously destructive and protracted rioting by North African immigrant youths in the desolate housing projects north of Paris in the fall of 2005. As interior minister at that time, Sarkozy attempted to enforce a zero-tolerance policy against the bands of adolescent vandals he famously denounced as "scum." But law and order was not the only casualty of this ethnic violence. Along with the thousands of cars that were put to the torch, the image of France itself was under assault. "The republican integration model, on which France has for decades based its self-perception, is in flames," the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung declared at the time.
France’s current soccer scandal has also prompted demoralizing comparisons to other institutional failures that one professor, François Galichet, has described as forms of "social illiteracy." Any administrative shabbiness that reeked of flagrant oversights — the Sarkozy government’s lax attitude toward conflicts of interest, the Société Générale banking scandal, and the railroading of a controversial pensions policy — has be equated with the accumulated failures that ended in disgrace at the World Cup. Not surprisingly, retrospective analyses of the World Cup preparations found egregious oversights and shortcuts to complain about. Many citizens were ambivalent about the team being in the World Cup at all because everyone knew it had advanced to South Africa on a clear violation of the rules — a last-gasp handball by Henry that led to the winning goal in a qualifying game against Ireland. That the guardians of French soccer allowed this unfair advantage to advance their cause reminded some French of what Galichet called "the extraordinary and abysmal failure of the French elites to administer any sort of collective enterprise." Consequently, the failure of France’s "black" team has made the success of multiracial integration seem superficial.
The huge media resonance of this French scandal also points to its symbolic significance for Western Europe as a whole. Indeed, the ubiquity and severity of ethnic and religious tensions in the European Union’s prosperous welfare states have become an integral part of the European condition. Ironically, while it was the performance of an African-American sprinter at 1936’s Nazi games that inspired France’s first push for athletic multiculturalism, the country that best exemplifies it today may that year’s Olympic host: Germany. Never before have so many members of the German national soccer team been of foreign derivation — from immigrant families, from families with one German parent, or sons of once-exiled Germans from Eastern Europe. Like its European neighbors, Germany is under intense pressure to integrate its immigrants, and its Turkish and Muslim immigrants in particular, into the social fabric. Although the skinhead killings of dark-skinned foreigners are now past, controversies over unemployment, multilingual schools, the construction of mosques, and low social mobility still simmer.
Germans have shown a lot of public interest in the ethnicity of their World Cup representatives, but this curiosity is still under control. Germany’s postwar inhibitions about racial chauvinism rule out official abuse, à la française. But the head of the German soccer federation has pleaded with German politicians to somehow transform the multiethnic harmony of the German national team into the social peace Germany needs as much as the rest of Europe does.
Of course, one reason why Germany’s team seems to be taking the edge off xenophobia while France’s squad is reinforcing it is that the Germans are winning. But as France has learned over the last decade, the national euphoria of a World Cup victory is only short-term relief. Bringing home the golden trophy is hardly easy, but compared with reconciling Europe’s racial tensions, it’s child’s play.