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French team debacle prompts soul-searching back home

Once the proud symbol of an inclusive nation, the French national team are now described by football experts and sociologists alike as a reflection of a broken society. But has the debate on the downfall of Anelka & Co let others off the hook?


“The Zidane generation has given way to the thug generation,” French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut announced on France Inter radio station Monday, in the latest evidence that the debate raging over France’s dismal World Cup campaign has given rise to profound soul-searching within French society.

Only a decade ago, when France’s multi-racial national team stood proud atop the football world, the country was celebrating a new spirit of unity in diversity. It was the so-called “black-blanc-beur” (black-white-Arab) spirit, a play on the famed “bleu-blanc-rouge” (blue-white-red) of the French flag.

Today, that vision of harmonious integration has been ripped apart by bitter squabbling at the heart of the French team. To some, Les Bleus – and none more so than disgraced striker Nicolas Anelka – have become a mirror image of France’s banlieues, the marginalised suburban neighbourhoods inhabited largely by immigrant communities and plagued by crime, poverty and widespread unemployment.

“There is no doubt that the French team is impregnated with the banlieue culture,” says sociologist Jean-Marie Brohm, referring to a cultural hodgepodge defined by foul-mouthed language, the law of the strongest and a profound dislike of authority.

According to French journalist and education specialist Emmanuel Davidenkoff, this culture is to blame both for the strife inside France’s football team and, in part, for the failure of pupils in the country’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The lure of money

Not all are comfortable with the analogy between the plight of France’s national team and that of its poorer suburbs. While Les Bleus’s South African campaign has gone horribly wrong, Davidenkoff goes on to point out that the individual players “can all boast of highly successful careers, achieved through hard work”.

For Xavier Rivoire, a journalist at France Football magazine, “talking of a ‘banlieue’ culture in the case of players who have long been millionaires” makes no sense at all.

When critics lash out at the players’ apparent lust for money, are they not touching on an obsession that is common to all the French, wherever they hail from?

Speaking on FRANCE 24, Azouz Begag, a former French minister of equal opportunity, said “there is no reason why the French team should not be a reflection of French society”.

Brohm goes a step further, suggesting that France’s footballers reflect "a ‘bling-bling’ republic that is arrogant and corrupted by money”.

One paradoxical effect of the current furor engulfing the team is the relative respite it has offered the man formerly branded as the chief architect of the demise of French football, coach Raymond Domenech.

That is unlikely to last. “Whether on the football pitch or in the classroom, responsibility lies ultimately with the people in charge,” says Davidenkoff.

Domenech and members of the French Football Federation beware.


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