Can Deschamps’ France unite a divided nation?

Mathieu Kassovitz’s film La Haine (Hate) opens with a shot of the globe which fills the screen. As a molotov cocktail hurtles towards earth in slow motion and explodes into flames, we hear the voice of one of the main characters, Hubert, in the background.

“So far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter: it’s how you land”

Made in the aftermath of a wave of shootings and bombings in France in 1995, the film presents a day in the life of three young adults from one of the impoverished housing projects on the outskirts of Paris known as la banlieue. The three friends are an interesting mix – Hubert is a black Christian, Vinz is a Jew of Eastern-European descent and Saïd is a north-African Muslim – but are united in their disenchantment of French society. As the title implies, Kassovitz’s outlook is far from optimistic, and the film ends tragically.

Three years later, France beat Brazil to win the World Cup on home soil with a similarly multi-ethnic blend of players. Zinedine Zidane, who scored a brace in the final, was born in Marseille to Algerian parents, defensive mainstay Lillian Thuram grew up in the banlieue after emigrating from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and Patrick Vieira was born in the Senegalese capital of Dakar. The so-called ‘black, blanc, beur’ (black, white, son of Arab) team seemed to demonstrate multicultural France’s unity at a difficult time for the nation and embody ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, with thousands of Parisians lining the Champs-Élysées to celebrate. As Simon Kuper says, ‘it was probably France’s happiest communal moment since Liberation in 1944, with the difference being that in 1998 all French people were on the same side’.

The spirit of that team now seems a distant memory, both in French football and society as a whole. In contrast, the pessimism of La Haine is ever-present. In 2005 a series of riots broke out across the banlieues of Paris and other major French cities, led by young people like Kassovitz’s protagonists who were fed up with their isolation from society. The Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 prompted prime minister Manuel Valls to declare there was “territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid” in France, and the subsequent Paris attacks have only exacerbated the situation. Meanwhile, politicians such as Marine Le Pen have ramped up anti-immigration rhetoric, and the racist Front National continues to make gains. France is in a state of turmoil.

The French national team’s fortunes have not been much better, despite the ‘black, blanc, beur’ team going on to win the European Championships in 2000. The sending-off of 1998 talisman Zidane in the 2006 World Cup final signalled the end of an era of unity in French football and the beginning of one of scandal and discord for Les Bleus. There have been allegations of sex with an underage prostitute involving Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery (both of whom were acquitted in 2014), infighting at the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euros (the former leading to a players’ strike against immensely unpopular manager Raymond Domenech) and evidence that the French Football Federation sought to impose secret quotas to limit the number of black and Arab players in the national team. Most recently, Benzema was suspended for blackmailing France teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sextape.

As the number of scandals increased, the French public began to lose more and more faith in the national side. More worryingly, the ‘black, blanc, beur’ effect of 1998 was reversed, with some using the diversity of the current team as a means of criticising immigration, as many of France’s current crop come from the non-white banlieues  or impoverished second-generation families.

Things have changed in the build-up to these European Championships, however. For once France had a relatively calm if unspectacular international tournament in Brazil, losing to eventual champions Germany in the quarter-finals. The French have got behind Les Bleus, partly because of the advent of this tournament but also as a way of showing solidarity following the attack on the capital.

This is undoubtedly a talented France team. Paul Pogba is the poster boy, and much has been made of whether the midfielder can live up to his Juventus predecessors Platini and Zidane in helping the national team lift a trophy on home soil (Platini’s France won the Euros in 1984), but others will be just as exciting. Antoine Griezmann has had yet another fine season for Atlético Madrid and will be a livewire in attack for the hosts. Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial are both only 20 but could also light up the tournament, while Leicester City’s tireless N’Golo Kanté will likely play a key role in shielding the defence.

And who better to lead them than the captain of the team who started the 1998 final, Didier Deschamps? The former defensive midfielder seems to have made a shrewd decision in omitting Benzema from his squad, even if he will be missed in attack. Benzema has accused Deschamps of bowing to “the pressure of a racist part of France”, but this is far from the case. There is a strong case to be made that the inclusion of the Real Madrid striker after the sextape scandal would simply have created tension in the French camp, and so credit must be given to Deschamps for potentially averting (touch wood) another tournament of disharmony.

This is an incredibly diverse group of players, even if Deschamps has not been drawn into comparisons with the ‘black, blanc, beur’ team. Pogba is of Guinean origin, Kanté of Malian descent and Martial has Martinique roots, to name but a few of the current squad. The fact that little has changed in France since the 1998 team conquered the world is proof that their success only papered over the cracks of society. But if Deschamps’ team were to do well this summer, it would at least go a small way to uniting a divided France.

 

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