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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

France finds common cause in its multicultural football team

France's World Cup squad is evidence of the different roots and skin colours that make up the country's sometimes fractured society

France supporters celebrate Les Bleus 1-0 victory over Belgium during the semi-finals of the Football World Cup. AFP
France supporters celebrate Les Bleus 1-0 victory over Belgium during the semi-finals of the Football World Cup. AFP

When President Emmanuel Macron entered the French dressing room in St Petersburg after Les Bleus’ winning World Cup semi-final against Belgium, a moment of mutual respect offered a glimmer of hope that sport can generate a sense of unity.

“Bravo, gentlemen,” he told players representing several strands of France’s multicultural society. “France is drowning in happiness thanks to you.”

If presidential congratulation was to be expected, the response was less so. The radio station RMC records that two of France’s stars – Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann – led team-mates in a spontaneous chant: “Et pour le president, allez’ (and for the president, come on).

Far from Russia’s second city, France – and most of the francophone world beyond Belgium – was boisterously en fete on Tuesday night as supporters celebrated confirmation of a first World Cup final appearance since the famous un-deux-trois triumph over Brazil in 1998.

Hundreds of thousands of exuberant fans invaded the Champs-Elysees in Paris, with the carnival mood spreading to towns and villages across the country.

Now as then, Les Bleus are drawn from mixed ethnic origins. Mbappe, already a footballing phenomenon at 19, is the son of a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother. Griezmann, though born in the Burgundy town of Macon, has German and Portuguese blood.

And throughout the World Cup squad is evidence of the different roots and skin colours that make up France’s sometimes fractured society: players born in France or abroad to parents with origins in Mali, Guinea, Togo, the Congo and Angola as well as Monaco, Italy and Spain.

The most “French” of the 11 players and two substitutes involved in the semi-final victory were two defenders Benjamin Pavard, from Maubeuge in northern France, and Raphael Varane, the son of a French mother and a father Martinique, a French overseas department in the Caribbean.

Almost as striking as France’s tournament success has been a spectacle to confound those on the populist right who complain that “the team isn’t really French at all”: millions of viewers around the world have seen the unforced gusto as this cosmopolitan team sings the words of the stirring if warlike national anthem, La Marseillaise.

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The question now is whether the melting pot of shared pride can prove more durable that the “black-blanc-beur” (black-white-Arab) spirit of the 1998 squad. Then, the march to glory was led by Zinedine Zidane, a formidable captain born in Marseille to Algerian immigrants.

But the example of 20 years ago is hardly encouraging. A sports sociologist, Ludovic Lestrelin, recalled that the mood of fraternity lasted all of one summer. “This team was seem as reflecting diversity, but it was a totally reconstructed, artificial proposition,” Prof Lestrelin wrote on his website.

For another academic, Emmanuel Blanchard, “black-blanc-beur” was an illusion.

Mr Blanchard, who wrote a book entitled The Blues and the Beurs: A team of France closed to the descendants of Algerians?, told Le Monde newspaper that between Algerian independence in 1962 and the first selection of Zidane 32 years later, only one other player of Algerian descent was chosen for France.

“There was really a myth born during the 1998 World Cup around France black-white-beur, since Zidane was alone in embodying the ‘beur’ component,” he said.

Many footballers of Algerian origin, even when playing in France, previously opted for Algerian international recognition “for political or family reasons” and this trend had continued with subsequent generations, he said.

The lesson of 1998, and the community tensions that continue to divide France, may suggest that no great faith should be attached to the power of football to overcome reciprocal suspicion and resentment.

But in their small way, the refreshing common touches between players and president in Russia are reinforced by the thoughts of a young barber, of Algerian origin but Marseillaise upbringing, and a French physiotherapist of Polish ancestry

“Even with Mbappe, no Algerian will ever support France,” the barber declared after the quarterfinals. Twelve days later, France having beaten Belgium with Mbappe again in sparkling form, there was a subtle change of heart: “They played well. Let the best team win the cup.”

And in the Mediterranean resort of Le Lavandou, the physiotherapist, Francois Klukaszewski, who refuses all appointments clashing with France’s televised games, said: “There’s a wonderfully festive atmosphere everywhere in France, something that helps to overcome racism, Jihadism and other problems to bring us together.

“You see the black-blanc-beur ethos even in small teams around the country, with people of all backgrounds happily playing together.

“Let’s hope it lasts longer than in 1998.”