Joel Dreyfuss is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists. He lives in Paris.
Friday marks the end of France’s closest equivalent to America’s Black History Month: Each year over a 30-day period, beginning May 10, France commemorates the final abolition of slavery in its colonies in 1848 and invites citizens to reflect on what the National Assembly officially recognized in 2001 as a “crime against humanity.”
In a country where discussions of race are rare compared with the United States, commemorative events this year, such as a high school essay contest and academic presentations on slavery and racism, were low-key affairs, even after President François Hollande announced support for a foundation and museum to memorialize slavery, which powered the growth of the French empire in the Caribbean and Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
But last week the subject of race exploded into the headlines anyway as France prepared to host its neighbors in the month-long Euro 2016 soccer competition. Ironically, the 24-country tournament kicks off the same day the 30-day commemoration of slavery ends.
The topic emerged when former French (and Manchester United) soccer star Eric Cantona wondered in a Guardian newspaper interview whether current Real Madrid starter Karim Benzema and French league standout Hatem Ben Arfa were left off the French national team for Euro 2016 because of their North African origins. Benzema added fuel to the fire a few days later when he suggested in a Spanish newspaper that national coach Didier Deschamps had succumbed to pressure from the “racist segment” of France.
Benzema, who stars at Real Madrid, had ostensibly been excluded from the national team because of charges that he was involved in a blackmail plot involving a sex tape of a teammate on the national team, Mathieu Valbuena. While Benzema is yet to come to trial, the directors of French football, with the support of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, left him off the roster. The case of Ben Arfa was more difficult to explain. He had an outstanding season in France’s top league this past season, scoring 17 goals, so his exclusion surprised many.
The French political class quickly rallied to Deschamps’s defense, denouncing the accusations of discrimination as unfounded. One National Front politician even went so far as to declare that “there is no racism in France.” But this is not the first time that charges of racism have touched the national team, one of the most visible examples of France’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity. When France won the World Cup in 1998, pundits proclaimed the “black-blanc-beur” (black-white-Arab) makeup of the national team as a sign of the country’s racial harmony. But when internal dissent led to a brief player strike during the 2010 World Cup and France’s early exit, critics questioned the patriotism of black and Arab players.
The strong minority presence on the French team has not always won unanimous approval. In 1998, Jean-Marie Le Pen, then head of the right-wing National Front, complained that the World Cup team did not look like France. In 2011, a recording emerged of French soccer officials discussing a quota to limit the number of young blacks and Arabs in their national training program. The officials were lightly reprimanded, and the public discussion abruptly ended.
A more persistent problem is the absence of minorities in management — a barrier not limited to sports in France. Last season, just one of 40 teams in the top two French leagues had a minority head coach. In 2006, Mali-born former French player Jean Tigana said he was denied a chance to coach his national team “simply because I am black.” The charge provoked an enormous silence. Last year, when the topic came up again, Tigana refused to address it. “The problem is, when I opened the discussion in France, no one supported me, no one responded. No one.”
France has not lost the ability to shut off debate on racial issues. After the powerful political backlash, Cantona retreated. He said he never accused the coach of being racist, but of succumbing to racial and political pressures because attitudes toward North Africans have hardened since last year’s terror attacks. Lilian Thuram, one of the few players from the fabled 1998 team to turn to political activism, asserted that racism does exist in French society but disagreed about the cause of Benzema’s exclusion, which he blamed on the sex tape scandal. “Benzema could have done a lot; it would have been extraordinary if he was the captain of the French team,” said Thuram. “But he needed to be irreproachable.”
Thuram worried about the impact the charges might have on the team. “Karim Benzema loves France,” he asserted, “but he loves it badly.” The same might be said about France’s attitude toward the team. Everybody loves a winner; all may be forgiven if France wins Euro 2016. The tougher test of France’s relationship to its soccer team — and its minorities — will come if the team stumbles or fails to win Euro 2016.