Charles De Gaulle (Office of War Information, Overseas Picture Division.)
Charles De Gaulle (Office of War Information, Overseas Picture Division)

Today we continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (here are posts 12, 3 and 4) with a look at identity, politics and football in Algeria and France. Following Tony Ross’s analysis of Algeria, Dan Lillie now examines integration from the French perspective. 

Of all the great or near-great footballing nations, France’s captious tendencies, particularly toward its former colonies and beneficiaries, have hindered its progress on the pitch.  In “Charles de Gualle and Europe,” Andrew Moravcsik alludes to the French leader’s “grand design aimed to promote French sovereignty and grandeur, amass French military power  and enhance French diplomatic prestige.”  France, in de Gaulle’s era, wanted it all: peace on the colonial front combined with unerring fealty to the mothership.

In simpler times for the French Football Federation (FFF) and for France, its colonies, like today, supplied a stream of talent to the national team.  Foreign-born and newly assimilated stars have allowed France to punch out of its soccer weight class for generations, including its stars in the 1958 Cup, Moroccan-born Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa, the son of Polish immigrants.  In a recent Monkey Cage blog post, “Diversity and Team Performance,” Edmund T. Malesky and Sebastian M. Saiegh note the beneficial impact of diversity with regard to successful results in European football.  For years, the French national team has had the benefit of “shadow” immigration, incorporating foreign-born players who have grown up in all corners of the globe.  Today, the talent is being harvested from Senegal, Mali, Algeria, Guadeloupe  and New Caledonia, but the new immigrant player pool has become a rebellious adolescent, less inclined to fall into formation.

That a nation relies on remote talent is not the stuff of high drama in world soccer today.  Repatriation, pay-for-play scenarios and passport forgery are just some of the ruses used to fill out rosters.  Dissension is not uncommon, but revolt is usually consigned to African nations, and the source of the problem is almost always a lack of money for the players. But rarely, if ever, has a squad with the pedigree and prominence of France almost desert the World Cup in mid-tournament, as its side did in its infamous revolt against its coach Raymond Domenech in 2010.

It is perhaps not shocking that the perpetually scowling Nicholas Anelka was at the center of the 2010 imbroglio — he was sent home after unleashing a torrent of verbal abuse at his coach — and again he featured as the sporting avatar of the pernicious Quenelle inverted Nazi salute to most, jokey subterfuge to its proponents.  Charles de Gaulle himself was an inverter, not of hand gestures, but of his policy toward Israel and the Arab nations, famously reversing course against the Israelis — whom he had previously supported with guns and money — after the Six Day War in 1967.

De Gaulle had in 1958 symbolically embraced all of Algeria after reclaiming the leadership of France, along with some of the “grandeur” he so cherished. Following the anticolonial uprising by the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in Algiers in 1954, the French government under Rene Coty tortured thousands of men.  The task of liberating the country would be complete in 1962, but not before the October 1961 massacre of pro-FLN supporters orchestrated by Maurice Papon, the head of the Parisian police and a protean and venal holdover from the Vichy regime that had long been de Gaulle’s nemesis.

Immigration and assimilation, in the form of Zidane, with Algerian roots, and Thuram, a Guadeloupian, won France its first World Cup in 1998.  Despite the jubilation after the victories in that Cup and the 2000 European Championship, anger on both sides has lingered, and riots in the Bandieue (immigrant suburbs of Paris) have flared well into the new century, fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment from Jean-Marie Le Pen.  In the decades since de Gaulle granted independence to all 13 French colonies, the allegiance and commitment of its national team seems as fragile as ever.

It can be questioned whether a pantheistic, pan-racial and pan-national society can produce football harmony that is based on exploiting the talent of its less-common cultures while implicitly subjugating them.  In 1967, in the wake of his Israeli policy shift, de Gaulle alluded to the “Jewish people, self-confident and domineering,” thus implying that any nation that sure of itself did not need France’s military and economic support.  So it is with players from the colonies; as they become more assertive, they also, it seems, become less French.

So divisive was the French cultural imperative expressed by de Gaulle back in 1958 that it seems to persist, at least in some form, to this day, manifesting as latent mistrust among the nation’s dark-skinned and Arab footballers. Recently, Yannick Sagbo, a striker for Hull City who is French-born but plays for Ivory Coast, supported Anelka after the quenelle ban, noting that he was a role model for the urban youth of France.  Despite shifting his footballing alliance away from France, Sagbo retains vestiges of French identity in the form of the “grandeur” sought by de Gaulle, although probably not in the way the old general would have preferred. Even so, the former president, were he alive today, may have been happy to hear about Sagbo’s endorsement, even though it strikes at the heart of traditional French culture. You can take the man out of France, but apparently the reverse is not true.

Daniel Lilie is the author of  “Soccer in the Weeds, Bad Hair, Jews, and Chasing the Beautiful Game,” and has featured on NPR’s “Only a Game” on New York City Life’s “Bookcase TV.” He has an abiding interest in the intersection between sports and urban culture, and is working on a novel, “Dark Roast.”  He lives in Encinitas, Calif.