French president’s romance with ‘communist’ football club
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Red Star Football Club, whose iconic ground François Hollande visited this week, is a Socialist president’s dream team: left-wing, working class, immigrant-rich, a magnet for hipsters – and not even remotely “bling bling”.
One of France's oldest clubs, Red Star is something of an oddity in the French football landscape. It was founded in 1897 by French football legend Jules Rimet, who would go on to establish the World Cup. How the club got its unusual, foreign-sounding name is a matter of historical debate, with some suggesting it was inspired by Rimet's English nanny. Confusingly, its jersey is actually green, albeit with a red star emblazoned on each player’s chest.
The club’s name evokes the many red-star teams that emerged in the Soviet block after World War I, though it is of course much older. Still, it proved to be a perfect fit as the team soon became intimately associated with the so-called "Red Belt" of working-class, communist-voting suburbs northeast of Paris. It has been described as "France's only openly communist club" and boasts of a French resistance hero in former player Rino Della Negra, who was shot by the Nazis for his role in the “Manouchian Group”.
The club experienced its heyday in the interwar years, when it racked up four French Cups. Its fifth title in 1946 was followed by a steady decline that saw it plummet as far down as the amateur leagues. Its colourful postwar history included a string of corruption scandals and a bizarre merger with a rival club in distant Toulouse, instigated by a leftist industrialist know as the "Red millionaire".
Football's 'living museum'
On Wednesday, Hollande paid a visit to Red Star’s iconic stadium in the suburb of Saint-Ouen, north of Paris. In a speech to the club’s senior and junior players, many of them black or of Arabic descent, the French president recalled his frequent trips to the Stade Bauer as a student, waxing lyrical about Red Star’s embodiment of “a diverse and multicultural France”.
It was not the first time he declared his youthful passion for the Parisian squad. Earlier this year, Hollande made a surprise appearance at a French Cup game between Red Star and Saint-Etienne, another historic club with a somewhat more impressive trophy haul. At the time, he hailed “the meeting between a working-class city and Red Star”, which he described as a “living museum of football”.
While few doubt the sincerity of Hollande’s support for Red Star, political and sports commentators were quick to remark that the president’s decision to go public about it smacked of political storytelling. What better club for a Socialist president desperate to reach out to an increasingly estranged working-class audience and burnish his left-wing credentials?
Inevitably, Hollande’s fling with Red Star has drawn comparisons with his predecessor’s well-known support for another Parisian club: the far younger, but also far more successful, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Incidentally, the latter’s core support also comes from the suburbs, including the immigrant-rich “red banlieues”. But its base in the French capital’s leafy, predominantly white West and its big-spending Qatari ownership convey the image of a rich man’s club, making it a perfect match for the former “bling bling” president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
A rival for PSG
Red Star's postwar decline precipitated the French capital's transformation into the equivalent of a football desert. While London invariably has at least five teams in the English Premier League, in recent decades Paris has counted only one club – PSG – in the top division. And even Paris Saint-Germain's recent string of successes has left many Parisians curiously unmoved.
PSG’s star-studded team picked up a record four trophies last year, but residents of the French capital could be forgiven for not noticing. There were no street parties, no wild honking, no victory parades on open-top buses. Middle class Parisians continued to sip their wine, Perrier and spritz cocktails in TV-less cafés, blissfully unaware of "their" team's exploits.
Left-wing politicians nostalgic for Red Star’s heyday have long hoped that the team might bounce back and provide an alternative to PSG. Their aspirations for the club overlap with local political intrigue. Last year, a centre-right candidate snatched Saint-Ouen’s town hall, ending more than 50 years of communist rule. The left now wants its territory back, and the local football club is caught up in the political battle.
The Stade Bauer is one of two Saint-Ouen landmarks, along with the world-famous flea market. It sits just outside the Périphérique ring road that circles the French capital and forms a formidable barrier between Paris and its suburbs. Breaking down this physical and psychological border is seen as crucial to the development of a more integrated “Grand Paris”.
Like other suburbs along the French capital's northeastern fringes, Saint-Ouen has been likened to a “Parisian Brooklyn”, attracting a more affluent crowd from inside the Périphérique. Local politicians hope a resurgent Red Star might help accelerate the process and contribute to the regeneration of run-down suburbs.
Ironically, Red Star’s working-class roots make it a magnet for hipster culture. It is left-wing, anti-fascist and family friendly. It has a cool name and is based a short cycle away from some of Paris’s hippest neighbourhoods. Fans are free to step in and out of the ground for a half-time drink or a merguez sausage. Many of them are actually proud of the team’s underachievement. Above all, the club’s long history and venerable stadium – with English-style stands, original pillars and unrivalled view of the Sacré-Coeur – give it vintage quality.
‘Red Star is Bauer’
Except the Stade Bauer is now mostly an empty shell, and a crumbling one too. The ground’s capacity has shrunk from 27,000 in the postwar years to a mere 3,000, with large swathes of the stands in ruin. The team’s surprise promotion to second division this summer spelled disaster for Red Star fans. Because the stadium no longer meets Ligue 2 standards, the team has been banished to the town of Beauvais, 75 kilometres away.
The stadium debacle is a prime example of the political bickering and financial woes that plague the “Grand Paris” project. For years Saint-Ouen officials pushed for the construction of a brand-new ground in another part of town, at one point endorsing a plan by Red Star’s ambitious president Patrice Haddad to build a €200-million complex featuring a stadium and a vast concert hall to be run by a Californian entertainment company.
But the fans would have none of it. For them, “Red Star is Bauer”, full stop. They came up with a modest plan to renovate the old stadium, which was shot down by the town’s new, centre-right administration. Meanwhile, Socialist MPs lobbied for Red Star to move to the nearby Stade de France, the French national team’s 80,000-seater home. In the end, nothing happened, and the team is effectively homeless.
"Red Star is experiencing a new youth, and it's a shame its stadium cannot accompany this wave of enthusiasm," Hollande said on Wednesday, urging all parties to find an urgent solution. Saint-Ouen's mayor William Delannoy snubbed the event, saying he had not received a formal invitation. His deputy Cyrille Plomb probably wished he had also stayed away after he was scolded by Sports Minister Thierry Braillard, who described the town's failure to get the stadium ready as an "utter disgrace".
Year of the Marseillaise
Hollande’s visit was part of a tour of the country aimed at promoting “the values of sport” ahead of next year’s Euro 2016, which France will host. In recognition of Red Star’s long tradition as an academy for youths from some of France’s most difficult suburbs, the French president named its director Pauline Gamerre in his team of 11 “ambassadors” for the European tournament.
Gamerre, 32, is the only female director in France’s top three divisions. FRANCE 24 spoke to her shortly after the club’s promotion to Ligue 2. She said Red Star’s upgrade meant the club could now open a full-fledged academy and serve as a magnet for youths in the wider area. “Teenagers will finally be able to thrive in their own environment,” she said, describing the Seine-Saint-Denis area north of Paris as “football’s Silicon Valley”.
France’s troubled suburbs, and the country’s failure to integrate certain minorities, have been in the spotlight again in the wake of the January attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Paris kosher store, which revived the spectre of homegrown terrorism. For Hollande, the trip to Saint-Ouen was a chance to repeat his calls for unity and attachment to the symbols and values of the French Republic.
“In these difficult times it is of paramount importance that we remain united,” said the French president, announcing that 2016 would be “the year of the Marseillaise”, as the French national anthem is known. After his speech, Red Star’s junior players duly sang the anthem, with the help of a professional choir, before gathering around the president for the inevitable selfies.
"Coming from the banlieue doesn't make us any different," 14-year-old Amine told local daily Le Parisien, when asked whether the notions of citizenship and the republic were important to him. His friend Kaïss expressed his “great joy” at meeting the French president. He also made clear what he expected of the French president, adding: “I hope he helps us rebuild our stadium”.
With French morale battered by a morose economy and fear of more terrorist attacks, Hollande will be hoping next year’s tournament can reproduce the nationwide elation that followed France’s home victory at the 1998 World Cup. Back then, the Bleu Blanc Rouge of the French flag famously gave way to the “Black Blanc Beur” (black, white and Arab) of multiethnic France. On Wednesday, it was Bleu Blanc Red Star.
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