Is France’s victory in the World Cup this weekend a victory for, well, France, or for Africa, as some have suggested?
That the winning squad was incredibly diverse has been widely reported; the Washington Post’s WorldView newsletter noted that of France’s 23 players, 17 are the children of first-generation immigrants. Several of the team’s players hail from African countries — Cameroon, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other places — while many of their teammates are the sons of African immigrants to France. Kylian Mbappé, the competition’s breakout star, is the child of a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother.
But Mbappé, like most of his teammates, is French, born and raised.
Soccer (or football, if you prefer) fans worldwide feted the diverse ethnic composition of this World Cup’s teams as a triumph of globalization and openness — and right they are to do so. Of the 32 teams that met in Moscow, 22 had at least one foreign-born player, and 82 of the 739 players at the World Cup were born outside of the country for which they played. This recalls when in 1998 France’s black, blanc, beur team came out on top, giving people hope that the solution to France’s fractious racial politics was forthcoming. Two decades later, race relations remain contentious, but Sunday’s victory has provided reason for hope again.
However, this has also led some to herald the French team’s supposedly pan-African character as its primary feature. On a Monday evening episode of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah said, “Basically if you don’t understand, France is Africans’ backup team. Once Senegal and Nigeria got knocked out, that’s who we root for.” Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro also weighed in: “The French team looked like an African team, in fact it was Africa who won.” And Khaled Beydoun, a professor of law at the University of Detroit and scholar of Islamophobia, put it like this:
Whether nativists, racists and the Marine Le Pens in France like it or not, much of the world views France as the last African team standing in Russia, demonstrating brown and black excellence in all of its glory.
Mais au contraire, Le Pen and her ilk can rest easy with the knowledge that Beydoun, Noah, and other likeminded commentators are doing their job for them.
Speaking about France’s 2010 World Cup team, Marine Le Pen infamously argued that the binational background of many of its players prevented them from truly representing France because they had “another nationality at heart.” In 1996, her father voiced a similar view when he said, “It is artificial that we make these foreign players and baptize them the French team.” This is to suggest that the French team is weakened by its inclusion of players with multicultural backgrounds.
Certainly, the views espoused by the Le Pens are different from the ones expressed by Noah and Beydoun; the former view the culturally diverse quality of the national team as anti-French, while the latter celebrate it. However, both groups’ positions stem from an assertion of difference, that even though Mbappé and his teammates are French, we ought to emphasize some non-Frenchness the identitarians contrive for their political purposes.
Those celebrating an “African” victory deny these Frenchmen consideration according to their French identity, which they proudly represent. From this vantage point the players are not seen as citizens of the French Republic, but rather as some foreign symbol of multiculturalism. This anti-republican sentiment isn’t only wrong; it contradicts the way the French view themselves, as citizens who should be subject to the same rights and privileges regardless of race.
Following his team’s victory, Paul Pogba (born to Guinean parents in France), described it like this: “There are all these [national origins], but you also see that in 1998. The France of today is a France full of different colors. This is to say in France, we’re all French. . . . France is a country like that, it’s like that we love it, and it’s like that we will always love it.”
This isn’t to deny there’s a complicated conversation about race and national identity currently underway in France, and indeed, this World Cup victory will add a new aspect to this debate. But as the country discusses this question, one thing is clear: The ideologues who call Sunday’s game an “African” win are just plain wrong, and they faintly echo the far Right, to boot.
Zinedine Zidane, the legendary player who carried France’s first World Cup victory, recently said of the 1998 triumph: “We don’t talk about religion, we don’t talk about skin color, we don’t care about any of that . . . we are together, and we enjoy this moment.” The identitarians should listen to him.