Rokhaya Diallo is a French writer, journalist, filmmaker and TV host for BET France.
PARIS — Unlike most of my fellow citizens for whom soccer is a religion, I am not a huge football fan. Yet on the sacred day of July 12, 1998, I, like 20 million other French people, watched France win the football World Cup with a group of my girlfriends. I was a 20-year-old student watching a team that looked pretty much like us — a mix of white, black and Arab players. Such a mix was quite unusual in a prime-time slot. Our hearts were beating as Zinedine Zidane scored two goals, followed by the final one from Emmanuel Petit, which defeated Brazil. We ended screaming with joy in the middle of the Champs Elysées. We were there, among a crowd of 1.5 million supporters, celebrating our team as Zidane’s face appeared on the Arc de Triomphe. We wished we could have had Zidane as our president.
The French media was suddenly discovering the multicultural face of our country, renaming the team “Black, Blanc, Beur” (black, white, Arab — a reference to France’s tricolor flag). That was a Bastille Day for our generation. It was the first time that minorities had been so widely celebrated. And that fact left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, as a young black woman, I was really proud to feel part of that new France. On the other hand, I was disappointed to see that it took a World Cup victory for the white elite to find out that we minorities existed and that we were actual French citizens.
Twenty years later, on Sunday, France defeated Croatia 4-2 to become World Cup champion for the second time in history. At a concert after the game at the Stade de France, rapper Jay-Z paid tribute to the champions during his performance. He wore the French team’s official shirt while singing one of the most popular songs in his repertoire: “Ni**as in Paris.”
This year’s World Cup team was mostly composed of players from African descent. I have read many articles and comments on social media celebrating the French team as the “last African team.” Being French of African descent myself, I can totally relate to the enthusiasm that feeds those statements. I share that sense of pride, seeing black excellence blooming in the eyes of the world. However, I can’t prevent myself from thinking about the daily struggle that non-white French people experience to be recognized as being truly part of their own country.
Over the past few decades, many politicians have questioned the “Frenchness” of the national team because of the players’ skin color. The first was far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who said in 1996 that it was “a bit artificial to bring in players from abroad and call it the French team.” His mind was incapable of anchoring those players — mostly born and raised in France — as being truly French.
In 2005, while many cities in the banlieues were exploding with outrage over of the deaths of two innocent teenagers who had been chased by police, philosopher Alain Finkielkraut gave an interview about French identity. He asserted that “people say the French national team is admired by all because it is black-blanc-beur. Actually, the national team today is black-black-black, which arouses ridicule throughout Europe.” In a way, he translated a discomfort that was showing more and more in French opinion. In 2000, a poll indicated that 36 percent of the French population thought that there were “too many players of foreign origin in the French football team.”
During the 2010 World Cup, the team encountered many discipline issues. Instead of an investigation into the dysfunction that had led to such a situation, the criticism was focused on questioning the players’ loyalty to their country since they had roots abroad. Roselyne Bachelot, who was then the minister of sports, said that they had “tarnished” the image of France and castigated them as a team of “gang leaders” in front of the National Assembly.
In 2011, the French Federation of Football was accused of applying quotas in training schools in order to have fewer players of African background. Laurent Blanc, a coach who was part of the 1998 team, reported a conversation he had with his counterparts from Spain, and said that they told him, “We do not have any problem … we have no blacks.” When someone asked whether they should limit the numbers of blacks in France, Blanc answered that he was in favor of that.
In past years, several players have been criticized over the fact that they did not sing the national anthem. Even if some of the white players from the younger generations, like Michel Platini or Eric Cantona, did not sing “La Marseillaise,” the same action from players of African descent was interpreted in a totally different way. Because of their origins, they were suspected of not being French enough.
From now on, France will expect that its team behaves and that its players will explicitly signal their love for France and respect for the flag and the institutions. Each time they speak in interviews, the members of the current team say “Vive la republique, vive la France!” — as if that is how to be accepted as a “good” French player.
Nobody has ever elected Les Bleus to represent France, so why should we expect them to express themselves as politicians? My hope is that someday all of our players will be undeniably French and that no part of their ancestry will be perceived as conflicting with being French.