A week after French football chiefs were accused of setting ethnic quotas in youth academies, the subsequent row has raised the sensitive question of multiculturalism in Les Bleus, and France as a whole.
“The end of the myth,” popular daily Le Parisien asserted Friday, referring to the ethnically diverse national team which swept France to its first ever World Cup victory in 1998. Back then, the French proudly labelled their team, “black-blanc-beur” (black, white and beur, the non-pejorative slang term for Arab), a fabled reflection of a multiethnic France, living and winning in harmony.
Today, the rusty notion has lost all credibility, and not just at the stadium.
“This affair goes way beyond just the realm of football,” Patrick Mignon, a sociologist at France’s National Institute of Sport, told FRANCE 24. “Since 1998, football has become a national concern [in France]. It highlights and reflects social issues. In the case of the quota controversy, that means racism.”
Mignon agrees with Le Parisien, arguing that the black-blanc-beur concept was a myth, and now it’s been thoroughly debunked. “It was already crumbling at the 2010 World Cup,” he says (incessant squabbling led to an early exit for the team). “With this new controversy at the FFF, it’s been shattered.”
Players from the original black-blanc-beur team entered the fray this week, leaving their 1998 team spirit behind as they took up positions on current national coach Laurent Blanc – himself a member of the ’98 golden team – who is reported to have been “favourable” towards the controversial quotas.
Not surprisingly, the same world champions who were united in 1998 are deeply divided today. Worse still, their differences seem to depend on their ethnicity, with black players slating Blanc’s alleged behaviour, while white players refuse to acknowledge it.
Former captain Patrick Vieira, of Senegalese origin, called Blanc’s alleged remarks about black players “scandalous”. “I know Laurent Blanc,” he said. “I don't think he's racist but I'm surprised by the degree of his comments. It's shocking”.
Bixente Lizarazu meanwhile told French radio RTL that Blanc had never had a racist attitude and should certainly not resign.
End of an illusion
“Everyone wanted to believe in the black-blanc-beur union in 1998,” says Mignon. “We wanted to believe that football was an example to follow in terms of integration.”
Mignon argues that the problem is not exclusive to France. “The UK, US and Germany all have the same sensibilities as France in terms of minorities and immigration,” he says. “We’re not the only country where such a thing could happen.”
Nonetheless, France is already troubled by the growing popularity of the far-right, who are notoriously unsympathetic when it comes to immigration concerns. This latest scandal comes as a further blow to the prickly subject of multiculturalism. “Football”, says Mignon, “is affected by the same ills as society as a whole”.
It looks like the hazy days of black-blanc-beur are long gone.
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