Diversity of origins in France's team reflects a multiculturalism still not widely accepted
World Cup win a good start for French integration efforts
A much-travelled young Emirati friend, with a lifelong passion for top-level football, neatly captured one of the heartening truths of France’s admirable 4-2 World Cup victory over Croatia.
As the match approached the end, with Les Bleus leading in reasonable comfort, she posted a telling social media message: “Africa is about to win the World Cup.”
If that was one evocative definition of the richly mixed ethnicity of the squad representing France in Russia, she also repeated another, a French team photograph accompanied by the slogan: “The one moment no one minds about immigration.”
Thorny community problems cannot be put right by the mere presence on a football pitch of black, brown and olive faces alongside white ones. Nor are they resolved if a little of the same similar diversity is seen among the hundreds of thousands of jubilant supporters cramming Paris’s most famous avenue, the Champs Elysees, where genuine revellers overwhelmingly outnumbered a minority of trouble-makers.
But there are lessons France can or should learn from the sense of pride and joy rightly felt by all sections of its society.
Around half the players taken by the manager, Didier Deschamps, to the 2018 World Cup finals are of African or, to a much lesser extent, Arab descent.
The starting 11 for Moscow’s denouement included two players, Paul Pogba and Ngolo Kante, who have been described as devout Muslims. Throughout the squad are men who might have opted, because of their parents’ origins, to accept international recognition from countries including Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Algeria, Guinea, Angola and Mali.
And there’s the nub. They chose to play for France. “I was born here and grew up here,” said one of three substitutes used on Sunday, Corentin Tolisso, the son of Togo immigrants.
Kylian Mbappe, the hugely gifted 19-year-old star of France’s side, spent his childhood in Bondy, a poor district just 16 kilometres from the Stade de France.
Encouraged by committed parents, a Cameroonian father who played and managed local football and an Algerian mother who made the top level of French women’s basketball, Mbappe showed his potential from early childhood. Again with their guidance, he also demonstrated his national allegiance, singing the anthem, La Marseillaise, and promising one day to play for France when he had barely started school.
Any French citizen basking in the reflected glory of the World Cup final win should also embrace the multicultural nature of that achievement.
Some were undoubtedly seduced in the past by the odious rhetoric of Jean-Marie Le Pen, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and anti-Semitic founder of the far-right Front National, whose contrived grievances included the number of black faces in the national football team.
The party has now been renamed Rassemblement Nationale — National Rally — as Mr Le Pen’s less confrontational daughter Marine tries, to varying effect, to present it as “a party like any other”. Yet it continues to attract those who naturally embraced her father’s unpleasant view of life; when the world acclaims Emmanuel Macron’s 66 per cent proportion of the vote in last year’s presidential election, it overlooks the disturbing fact that 10.6 million French electors still supported Ms Le Pen.
In the communities dominated by immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa, and their descendants, ordinary people — and especially the young — have an important role, too, in building on the revival of the Black-Blanc-Beur (black, white, Arab) ethos of France’s first World Cup win 20 years ago. Let Mbappe, with his inspirational skills and love of country, be their role model of choice, not the drug dealers and gangsters.
But if the inevitable feel-good benefits are to endure in a way that the 1998 spirit did not, Mr Macron and his government must also recognise their crucial responsibility.
Football’s power as a unifying force must not be exaggerated. After all, Osama bin Laden loved the game, as did many of ISIL’s young western recruits before they were turned into bloodthirsty killers.
Mr Macron’s duty, all the same, is to show all French citizens that France's World Cup exploits represent a collective victory and that they are, whatever their roots, equally welcome and valued.
The president takes pride in pursuing a reforming programme even when, as now, it carries the heavy price of sharply diminishing popular approval. He has spoken nobly about discrimination and unequal opportunities in such suburbs as Mbappe’s Bondy; now he should act, or order his ministers to act, to render these evils as unFrench and anti-republican as they are theoretically illegal.
If he adopts bold measures to tackle deprivation in the banlieues, and to shame those who cling to old hatreds and suspicions, he will deserve to be remembered as a great head of state.
If the president simply reverts to concentrating on economic and structural modernisation, and making an impact on the international diplomatic stage, his exuberant support and words of congratulation for Les Bleus in Russia will soon enough come to be seen hollow posturing.