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Last Sunday, France – and all its domestic racial and religious politics – was placed fully on display. Les Bleus had just claimed their second World Cup, besting a gritty Croatia 4-2.
They hoisted the trophy for the first time in 1998, when Zinedine Zidane led a racially and religiously diverse team that was celebrated by President Jacques Chirac as a symbol of French “unity”. His xenophobic rival, Jean-Marie Le Pen, condemned the champions as “unworthy” representatives who (he claimed) did not know the words of La Marseillaise. For Le Pen, and his rising nativist base, color meant everything and the pointedly Arab, Amazigh, black and ethnic composition of the team was a national affront, not a symbol of national pride.
In France today, this split remains: a rapidly emerging movement in which color and race mean everything, represented by the Front Nationale and an establishment that clings tightly to its fixation on colorblindness, a worldview that sees race as non-existent.
Colorblindness is more than just a myth in France. It is law, whereby the words “race” and “racism” were recently removed from the constitution and the collection of racial, ethnic or religious demographic data is restricted. Both aspirational and absurd, French colorblindness says national identity trumps and supplants race and ancestry, deeming the latter two irrelevant. One is simply and exclusively French, not French-Algerian or French-Cameroonian, the whole enterprise of hyphenated identities an affront to the national ethos.
From 1998, the conversation around colorblindness in France, and the hyphenated identities of the footballers whose faces were illuminated on the Arc d’Triomphe, became a topic of national and global concern.
The 2018 team, led by its talisman, Paul Pogba, and its electric and emergent star, Kylian Mbappé, is even more black and brown than the breakthrough 1998 team. It emerged during renewed racial and xenophobic hostilities in France, manifested most vividly by the rise of Marine Le Pen, the new head of the Front Nationale, who took nearly 34% of the vote in the 2017 presidential election.
This French team could be a pan-African all-star selection. Muslims were also prominently represented; stars like Pogba and N’golo Kante regularly prayed before matches. After claiming victory in Russia, they dropped to their knees again. This was the French team: simultaneously, still French.
Seconds before the World Cup was over, and France prepared to celebrate before billions, I tweeted:
Congratulations on winning the #WorldCup.
80% of your team is African, cut out the racism and xenophobia.
50% of your team are Muslims, cut out the Islamophobia.
Africans and Muslims delivered you a second World Cup, now deliver them justice.
The tweet went ballistic. Within an hour, it was retweeted 50,000 times; today it has been retweeted 218,000 and liked more than half a million times. It resonated deeply within and beyond France. Trevor Noah, on The Daily Show, referenced the tweet and quipped that “Africa won the World Cup”, drawing the ire of the French ambassador. He rebutted: “Unlike the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on its race, religion, or origin. To us, there is no hyphenated identity.”
The ambassador doubled down on French commitment to colorblindness. Noah, who is from South Africa, pointed out that race and racism are realities that cannot be set aside.
When they win, they’re black, white, Arab, and when they lose, they’re lowlifes from the ghetto
My tweet also revealed that much of the world saw the French tenet of colorblindness as fundamentally a romantic idea belied by racial realities on the ground in France: a nation ripped by explosive race riots in the overpopulated immigrant suburbs of Paris, Marseilles and other metropolises; a state that institutionalized Islamophobia and orients Muslim identity as antithetical to French identity; a political landscape where the xenophobic and white supremacist Front Nationale is a mainstream political party.
The French football legend Eric Cantona poignantly summarized the sentiment among voices that rejects the notion that “France is an African team” and lauds them when victorious as exclusively French, stating: “When they win, they’re black, white, Arab, and when they lose, they’re lowlifes from the ghetto.” Cantona’s words echoed those of Karim Benzema, the world-class forward who has been blacklisted from the French team since 2015, who said before the 2014 World Cup: “If I score, I’m French. If I don’t, I’m Arab.”
Football reveals that racial transcendence in France, and the realization of colorblindness, is situational, only had when black or African, Arab or Muslim players excel on the pitch and claim glory for a country where race is illegal but institutional racism and Islamophobia ubiquitous. For the likes of Le Pen and her nativist backers who zealously hold that France is a white nation, World Cup glory isn’t enough. Echoing her father, Le Pen – and her rising base – view the 2018 team as a symbol of French societal decline.
“According a study from last June,” writes Myriam Francois, “66% [of French people] believe traditional values are not protected enough in France, 60% think there are too many immigrants in France and 48% believe Islam and Muslims have too many rights in France today.”
While a romantic idea, colorblindness is contradicted, emphatically, by the sentiments of the French people. In the Washington Post, the Purdue University professor Jean Beamen writes: “Les Bleus’ victory was not a win by immigrant players, it was a win by French players. Dismissing the citizenship status of these French players further makes them ‘citizen outsiders’, forever on the margins of mainstream society because of their ethnic background.”
“Citizen outsiders” indeed. Holding formal citizenship does not garner equal treatment and the robust acknowledgement of their identity.
The French national team, which captured its second World Cup and the support of fans everywhere, embodies what France can one day become, if only its political gatekeepers move aside and see their people for who they truly are: both French and African, black, Arab, Amazigh, Muslim and so much more. The whole world saw the diverse and vibrant colors of the French football team last Sunday. It is high time that the French government did so too.
Khaled A Beydoun is a law professor and author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear (University of California Press). He tweets @khaledbeydoun and can be reached at khaledbeydoun.com.