A warm autumn evening in Paris’s Stade de France, the UFO-like landmark French stadium. Two teams : France and Tunisia, invited for a friendly game. Sixty thousand spectators, including many French youths of Tunisian or North-African descent. All in all just another ordinary football game. Only it wasn’t.
Things went sour even before the game started, when loud boos and jeers nearly covered the voice of the young Franco-Tunisian singer performing the French national anthem. Afterwards, all through the game, incessant catcalls targeted Hatem Ben Arfa, born in France to Tunisian parents, who opted to play for his birth country despite overtures from the Tunisian Federation.
The next day, every French politician in the arena had something to say about the game. Strongly condemning these “scandalous incidents”, French president Nicolas Sarkozy promptly summoned the French Football Federation Jean-Pierre Escalettes and demanded that in the future, all games where the national anthem is booed be immediately suspended. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Michèle Alliot Marie demanded that last night’s offenders be indentified and sanctioned. In France, insulting the Marseillaise is a criminal offence.
“It’s like watching a competition between your father and your mother”
Skander Gafsi, a 27-year-old French citizen of Tunisian descent, was at the game yesterday. “It’s never easy when there is a game opposing France and Tunisia” he told FRANCE 24. “Most spectators for this type of game are Franco-Tunisian, and it’s like watching a competition between your father and your mother. It’s tough!”
Gafsi sang both hymns and “felt bad for Ben Arfa and Benzema”, Tunisians on the French team especially targeted by boos. “I don’t agree with the catcalls, but I understand why they did it”, he says. “These are people whose voice is never heard, except once every three years at a football game. They feel the need to speak out.”
Others go even further in the reactions they posted on FRANCE 24's website : “This incident reminds me of the Muslim uproar over the blasphemous caricatures of Mohammed last year. Sacred symbols were disrespected, so some Muslims feel the need to take revenge”, wrote one anonymous contributor from Tanger, in Morocco.
The incident has sparked a harsh debate in France, however, and not everyone sympathizes with the booing supporters. “If these guys aren’t happy, they should just hand in their passport,” Lyes Ben Chedli, President of the Association of Friends of the Mediterranean Union told FRANCE 24. “I think the boos are a question of lack of education and lack of integration. I fully agree with the government’s reaction: this type of attitude requires a strong response and appropriate sanctions.”
“Anyone who boos the Marseillaise should not be in France”
This view is widely echoed by dozens of readers who reacted to the incident on France 24’s website. “Anyone who boos the Marseillaise just should not be in France. We never asked them to come!” wrote one. A comment viewed as inacceptable by Christophe Bertossi, Director of the Migration Programme at the French Institute of International Relations. “We shouldn’t confuse the symbol and what the symbol represents. Just because these youths reject the Marseillaise doesn’t mean they hate France. The people who booed the anthem are just as probably proud of their French passport,” Bertossi told FRANCE 24.
The problem, according to Bertossi, lies in the archaism of anthems as a symbol. “In France, as in other European countries, we’re searching for national identity symbols to cling on to in a globalised world. The problem is, these symbols are no longer relevant in today’s society, which is increasingly multicultural.”
Asked to comment the government’s reaction to the incident, Bertossi was hesitant. “I can’t say whether the measures announced are too much or too little. I can only wonder : is it really the State’s role to decide whether to suspend a football game, or is it the referee’s ? Can the state control everything?”
The incident is yet another reminder of the unrest and discontent that is widespread among immigrant communities in an around the French capital. It will certainly give extreme white wing partisans more to fuss about. “Even though I didn’t boo during the game, I’m sure that in the eyes of some I’ll be tainted by this incident,” said Gafsi with a hint of bitterness. As another anonymous commentator pinpointed on FRANCE 24, France is still “very far from encouraging peaceful cohabitation between its different communities.”