In an era of increasing nationalism and fortified borders, France’s 2018 World Cup success has allowed for the creation of a more optimistic narrative of the value of immigration. Its star player, 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé, and so many of the other players on the national team, including Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Ousmane Dembélé and Adil Rami, are children of African immigrants. (Only two of the players were born outside France — Steve Mandanda in what was then Zaire and Samuel Umtiti in Cameroon — but both moved to France when they were 2.)
Yet, the celebration of France’s win by an “African team” actually illustrates the racism that has been so rampant in French society. Les Bleus’ victory was not a win by immigrant players, it was a win by French players. Dismissing the citizenship status of these French players further makes them “citizen outsiders,” forever on the margins of mainstream society because of their ethnic background.
Such an immigrant-win narrative exists because people of color are often discussed as immigrants or foreigners, rather than as citizens or as members of the French republic. It is taboo to mention race and ethnicity in France (and, just recently, the word “race” was removed from the French Constitution).
Why? Even before the French Revolution, France has constructed itself in civic, rather than ethnic, terms. Being French is supposed to supersede all other identifications, be they linguistic or regional or otherwise. And looming over such ideals today are the dark days of the Vichy regime during World War II, when race did become dangerously divisive. Using racial categories, Jews in France and in French colonies in the Maghreb were rounded up and deported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. This has created an ugly association with the use of subnational categories that France does not want to revisit.
This obsession with national identity and fear of division denies distinctions of race or ethnicity. France does not even measure race and ethnicity on its census. Therefore, there are no “official” statistics of France’s nonwhite population. In fact, many in France denounce American identity politics, seeing such acknowledgment of racial and ethnic differences as “balkanizing” society rather than uniting it. And so, there is no equivalent label of “African American” or “Asian American” in France.
The problem is that this ideal hasn’t erased racism from France, and, in fact, compounds its evils because there is no language to grapple with it. “Visible minorities,” a term often used for people of color in France, are denied recognition as being French. They can be born and raised in France, attend French schools and, yet, similar to several players on Les Bleus, they are referred to as immigrants or as foreigners, not as French.
This is not a celebration of inclusivity, it is a restriction of their belonging in France. Starting in the early 1900s and accelerating dramatically after World War I, France welcomed many migrants from its former colonies. Those migrants came from African countries such as Algeria and Senegal as well as from overseas départements such as Guadeloupe or Martinique.
But in contrast to the United States, which touts its immigration history as part of its national ethos, France does not. For example, immigrants from former North African colonies to mainland France were expected only to be laborers, not to settle permanently and have children and become part of French society. Debates over restricting immigration and nationality laws have only heightened in recent administrations, as many view migration as a threat to French identity.
Labeling nonwhite people as immigrants thus allows racism to fester. This has serious ramifications for minorities. For example, Hafid, a 40-year-old executive born to Algerian parents outside Paris, whom I interviewed for my research, hates the term “les issus de l’immigration” (directly translated as “issued from immigration”) because it implies he is from another culture. “We’re just as French as anyone else,” he explains. Yet Hafid and others are not treated that way. They are forever identified as migrants, even though they are native-born French citizens. They are told by far-right politicians and others to integrate into French society, as if they automatically are not a part of it.
Moments like the World Cup victory are further used to deny the existence of racism in France and emphasize national unity. But racial and ethnic minorities in France — regardless of class or professional success — face real challenges today, whether it’s constant identity checks by the police and others that disproportionately target racial and ethnic minorities, difficulties moving up the occupational hierarchy or lack of adequate representation in all levels of government.
Even in the celebrations of the victory on July 15, the prefecture restricted public transportation lines from the banlieues into Paris. And about a week before the victory, Aboubakar Fofana, a 22-year-old black man, was killed by a police officer in Nantes in central France, which led to demonstrations and rioting.
So, yes, let’s revel in France’s World Cup victory. But let’s understand it as a victory by French players, people who are part of French society, even if they are constantly seen as outside of it.