Does French Soccer Have an Arab Problem?

As Euro 2016 kicks off, the French national team is once again facing questions over just which France it represents.

PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL - JUNE 15: Karim Benzema of France (2nd L) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's first goal on a penalty kick during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group E match between France and Honduras at Estadio Beira-Rio on June 15, 2014 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL - JUNE 15: Karim Benzema of France (2nd L) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team's first goal on a penalty kick during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group E match between France and Honduras at Estadio Beira-Rio on June 15, 2014 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Last week, on the eve of this year’s European Cup championship, one of soccer’s most prolific scorers, Karim Benzema — a French citizen born to Algerian immigrants — galvanized France. Not with a spectacular goal for Les Bleus, the French national team hosting Euro 2016, but rather with an observation he made in a Spanish newspaper, affirming that there is, in fact, “a racist part of France.” The events leading up to his remark, and those that followed, have transformed Benzema from a man who kicks balls into a net for a living (to the tune of nearly 200,000 euros a week) into the protagonist of an intense political drama — one that, depending on one’s perspective, reveals something rotten in the soul of Benzema, in the state of France, or, perhaps, in both.

The facts of the affair are as unsavory as they are undisputed: A few weeks ago, the French Football Federation (FFF) announced that Benzema would not play for Les Bleus in the upcoming Euro Cup. The FFF’s president, Noël Le Graët, cited a legal case now pending against the player. Last fall, the French media revealed that Benzema had been party to the blackmailing of his teammate and erstwhile friend, Mathieu Valbuena. A handful of lowlifes had contacted Valbuena demanding 100,000 euros in order not to go public with an intimate video of Valbuena and his girlfriend. When Valbuena balked, one of the blackmailers, a friend of Benzema’s, asked the soccer star to tell Valbuena that this was an offer he couldn’t refuse. According to a recorded conversation he had with Valbuena, as well as his own admission, Benzema did precisely that. Not amused, the French courts charged Benzema as an accomplice to attempted blackmail. In short order, the FFF dropped Benzema from Les Bleus, and Valbuena dropped him as a friend. “I feel,” Valbuena confessed, “as if I’ve been played for a jackass.”

Many in France now think Benzema has done the same with them. In an interview last week with the Spanish sports journal Marca, Benzema was asked about a remark made a few days earlier by French soccer great Eric Cantona, who — alluding to Benzema’s status — had suggested that Les Bleus’ coach, Didier Deschamps, was racist. (What Cantona left unsaid was the long history of animosity between himself and Deschamps.) Benzema aimed his words with the same skill as he aims his penalty kicks. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied, “but he [Deschamps] has bowed to pressure from a racist part of France.” His words transformed what had been a squalid story about soccer stars run amok into a furious debate over the role of racism in French society, politics, and sport.

Les Bleus are not strangers to such controversies. Over the past two decades, they have, in effect, served as a barometer for the highs and lows of France’s self-image as a multicultural nation. Nearly 20 years ago, when France hosted the 1998 World Cup, the underestimated Bleus — a multicolored team comprising players of French, African, and Arab descent — defeated heavily favored Brazil to win the championship and electrify the nation. It was a victory that allowed the French to believe “unity in diversity” was more than a slogan — that France’s varied communities strengthened, rather than weakened, the Republic. For a moment, the national colors were no longer bleu, blanc, et rouge — but black, blanc, et beur (the last being a slang word for “Arab”), as the nation proudly embraced its increasingly multicultural character. This great swell of optimism was given another lift two years later, when Les Bleus swept to victory in the Euro Cup.

But these victories were little more than distractions from deepening tensions in the world outside the stadium. France’s economy at the time was stagnant; the social fractures Jacques Chirac had promised to bridge upon becoming president in 1995, in fact, grew wider under his watch. Tellingly, in the same year Les Bleus won the Euro Cup, more than a third of respondents replied “oui” to pollsters who asked if “there were too many players of foreign origin” on the team. The following year, during a match in Paris between France and Algeria — the first ever between the two countries, bound together by a catastrophic colonial past — young beurs in the stands jeered the playing of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem, and forced the abandonment of the game when, with France ahead 4-1 and 15 minutes still remaining, they jumped the barriers and poured onto the field. The sight of thousands of young men from the poor suburbs, or banlieues, flooding the field — though it seems likely they did so not as an act of protest, but out of a desire to party — deeply unnerved many French citizens. By 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the racist leader of the right-wing National Front party, who a few years earlier had derided the black, blanc, et beur phenomenon as “having nothing to do” with his ideal of Les Bleus, reached the final round of that year’s presidential election.

Chirac subsequently trounced Le Pen with 82 percent of the vote. But Chirac’s victory was no more meaningful than was the earlier victory of Les Bleus over Algeria. A nation that just years earlier had believed it could achieve unity in diversity was now betraying disunity in adversity. In 2005, the prominent intellectual Alain Finkielkraut declared that France’s team had become the laughing stock of Europe: not because of its win-loss record, but because of its composition. Anyone could see, he told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the reputedly black, blanc, et beur squad was, in fact, “black, black, black.” Echoing him was the veteran Socialist mayor of Montpellier, Georges Frêche, who stated it was not “normal” that nine of the team’s 11 starters were black.

At the same time, politicians on both the left and right of the political spectrum began to criticize players for not singing “La Marseillaise” before the start of their games. Zinedine Zidane, the star of the 1998 and 2000 teams, and himself of Algerian descent, was rarely seen singing the national hymn. Michel Platini, the heralded star from the 1980s (and a now disgraced former FIFA official), reminded fans that many players in his own day did not bother to sing along to the national anthem either. Yet this did not prevent Marine Le Pen — daughter of the aforementioned Jean-Marie Le Pen who would later go on to lead the National Front herself — from issuing a much noted lament: “When I look at Les Bleus, I don’t recognize France or myself.”

By 2010, Le Pen fille was not the only one in France singing les bleus. During that year’s World Cup in South Africa, the French team refused to train. They were protesting the expulsion of their teammate, Nicolas Anelka, who, in reply to a coach’s criticism, told him to bugger off but in much cruder terms. The strike lasted 10 days — long enough to guarantee the team’s early exit from the tournament, as well as a vast swell of public outrage back home. With this episode, Les Bleus reached their nadir, transforming themselves, collectively, into the useful idiot for those seeking to exploit growing tensions over the issue of national identity in France. (As for Anelka, he effectively ended his career a few years later when, during a game in 2014 for the West Bromwich team, he brandished the quenelle, the trademark fascist salute of the French comedian and notorious anti-Semite Dieudonné.)

Benzema has himself been at the center of “La Marseillaise” controversies: In January 2015, the anthem was played at a match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona to honor the victims of the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher terrorist attacks. When the last note sounded, Benzema turned his head and spat — a gesture that set French social media alight. He has said before that he will not be forced to sing along. (Though he has not given his reasons for this silence, Benzema declared a few years ago that Algeria is “mon pays.” The French word “pays” can signify a country where one has citizenship or a country to which one has sentimental attachment.) And in addition to these real or perceived slights against France, there’s also the matter of a 2014 court case against Benzema for having paid for sexual relations with a minor. (The charges were eventually dismissed.)

Tellingly, there is little disagreement over the contents of Benzema’s character: Most everyone agrees that his behavior in the Valbuena case justified his punishment. Few of Benzema’s defenders portray him as an innocent victim of institutionalized racism; just as few credit him with selflessness in his sudden concern over this particular issue. The soccer star had never previously bothered to address the issue of racism in French society.

And yet, while Benzema’s character is a settled matter, his broader accusation of racism in French sport is not. It is simply not enough to conclude, like Le Pen, that Benzema is “hiding his own depravity behind these outrageous charges against the French people.” The “French people” include some 5 million French Muslims, the vast majority of whom are of North African or Middle Eastern descent, living in a country that is grappling very publicly with how Islam fits into society. Two months ago, a Le Figaro poll revealed that unease over the presence of Islam in France, once limited to the right and extreme right, has spilled over to the other side of the political spectrum. In 2010, 39 percent of Socialist voters agreed that Islam played “too important” a role in France; today, 52 percent believe this is the case. Nearly three decades ago, one of every three French citizens favored the building of more mosques; today, scarcely one in 10 support this policy. And so on.

Sports have not been immune from the rise of racist and nativist sentiments. French soccer fans have, at times, targeted black players with racist gestures and catcalls. Few can better attest to this than Patrick Vieira, the great midfielder on the 1998 French team. Born in Senegal but raised in France, Vieira was not only repeatedly subjected to racist taunts as a player, but later, when he was coach of Manchester City’s youth team, called off a match in Croatia when the same happened to one of his players.

But these instances of racism, while no less ugly, have received far less notice than l’affaire Benzema, in part due to the current national obsession over Islam. Not surprisingly, the rare observers who expressed sympathy for Benzema’s critique, while decrying his behavior, have found themselves tackled as well. Jamel Debbouze, an immensely popular French comedian of Moroccan descent, is the most striking example. Debbouze’s initial response to the uproar was to suggest that the country’s stigmatized and scorned suburban youths, mostly the offspring of North African immigrants, needed Benzema on the national team. “As long as nothing is done to improve life in the suburbs,” he stated, it is a mistake “to have not a single one of ‘our’ representatives on Les Bleus.” Besides, Debbouze continued, Benzema was simply “paying the price” for the divisions running through French society. (Stunned by the subsequent uproar, however, Debbouze later apologized for his remarks and, rather lamely, urged all of his fans to support the team.) For his part, Zidane, now coach of Benzema’s Real Madrid team, has weighed his words carefully, saying only that “one can be disappointed as a soccer fan” by Benzema’s absence.

Benzema received less tentative backing from the maverick Socialist politician and former Education Minister Benoît Hamon, who said Benzema had “evoked a reality.” We are, he continued, a nation in “denial over the rise of intolerance.” In today’s France, he concluded, “we can all too easily say that we don’t like Benzema because he has the mug of an Arab.” This is the same France, Hamon had no need to add, where former President Nicolas Sarkozy referred to Arab youths as “scum” and whose interior minister, Brice Hortefeux, once joked that: “One Arab is OK. It’s when there are more that there are problems.”

For the moment, Hortefeux would no doubt conclude things are OK with Les Bleus as there is just one “Arab” on the team. (The holder of this dubious honor is Adil Rami, the Corsican-born son of Moroccan immigrants, who plays for Sevilla FC.) As for the team’s chances to take the cup, they are more than OK — and possibly even better without their star striker. Benzema’s presence would have been a distraction, and the team has other world-class strikers in Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. But even if the team wins the championship — for France, in France — the country has yet to answer the question posed in a recent headline in Le Monde: “Les Bleus, the Team for Which France?”

Photo credit: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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