Before the 1998 soccer World Cup, French far-Right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked many by claiming the team was “artificial” because it “brought players from outside,” and not representative of France because of their skin color. Unfortunately for Le Pen, France triumphantly won its first World Cup that summer. Over the next years, the idea that the team was too “African,” “multicultural,” that the players were not singing the Marseillaise loud enough, was a recurrent and nasty far-Right trope brandished after each underperformance. Behind this was the suspicion these French citizens, often recent immigrants, weren’t truly French—were somehow others.
This helps explain how disturbing it is to many French people to see the team that won the 2018 World Cup celebrated in the United States as “Africa’s team.” No offense is clearly meant by those doing the celebrating, but their enthusiasm hits a very sour note. Trevor Noah, the host of the Daily Show, sang “congratulations to Africa for winning the World Cup.” “Look at those guys,” Noah went on. “You don’t get that tan by hanging out in the South of France, my friends”—a sentence that would surely warm Le Pen’s heart. A viral tweet, pointing to racism in France, claimed the team was “80% African,” echoing similar sentiments ricocheting across social media and op-ed pages. Just because these sentiments are naïve does not excuse them. They clearly mirror the far Right in essentializing individuals because of their skin color or country of origin. More importantly, they deny people agency over their own identity, all to make a simplistic feel-good political point.
Confronted by the outrage their casual language had sparked, defenders of the “Africanness” of the French team tried to explain the controversy away by gesturing at the differences between how France and the United States integrate newcomers. It is well known the French are less comfortable with multiculturalism (“communitarianism”) than their American counterparts. The French model of citizenship is in theory linked to a sense of belonging to universal republican institutions, not to a collection of tribal groups. When granting full citizenship to Jews during the French Revolution, the Count of Clermont Tonnerre famously told the National Assembly, “We should grant everything to Jews as individuals and nothing as a nation.” In this sense, the Revolution consecrated a national identity that, already under the old Regime, was built on a unique relationship between the state and individuals. Specific identities, or religion, were fine at home, not in the public sphere: ethnic polling is prohibited, and the very notion of the word “race” was recently stripped from the constitution.
But I’m reluctant to even grant that point. Explaining away this debate as just cultural differences between the United States and France would mean implying the argument has some validity in the American context. It doesn’t. Even here, it is, as they say, “problematic.” If we restrict it to sports, let’s try this counterfactual: Would anyone have dared call the American Olympic basketball team “African” after its 1992 triumph? Perhaps some might try today, but that only serves to underline the silliness of our times. A very recent obsession with tribalism and identity politics has made it acceptable among certain people to assign other individuals their identity, even against their will—to contextualize their speech and their accomplishments. It’s one thing to claim pride in multiple identities as is often the case in the United States, or to find inspiration in a diverse team; it’s another one to constantly stress differences and essentialize people against their own will.
Let’s turn to the French players themselves. 21 of 23 of them were born French citizens. During the tournament, they kept repeating how proud they were to represent France. After-game interviews were often peppered with genuine displays of patriotism—Pogba or Griezmann echoing Macron by saying “Vive la République! Vive la France!” They ran onto the pitch with French flags after defeating Croatia last Sunday. They hugged and applauded a wounded veteran of the French intervention in Mali that Macron had brought to the locker room. Benjamin Mendy even tweeted back at an account that put the flag of the country of origin next to each player, replacing the foreign with a French flag, and adding “fixed.” Nicolas Batum, a star player for the French basketball team was less diplomatic in his reaction: “Go ‘check’ yourself. (…) Yes, my dad and last name are from Cameroon but I was born, raised, taught basketball in France. Proud to be FRENCH.” There’s nothing inherently contradictory between being French and having an attachment to another country. But it’s better to listen to how people feel before assigning them another identity.
What about the consequences of politicizing the victory in such a way? If France’s 2018 triumph is the success of immigration or diversity, then should the reverse be said of its defeats? Is the racist narrative (“they don’t care about France”) to be put forward after France’s humiliating show at the 2010 World Cup, where the team was wracked by conflict between towering egos, which culminated in an actual strike—the Frenchiest thing ever—when players refused to train in protest of a coaching decision? In mimicking the far Right’s obsession with race and origins, identity politics activists are paving the way for this kind of racist backlash.
The French victory this year is first and foremost the success of an exceptional generation of talented and mature players, like Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, and Antoine Griezmann; astute coaching by Didier Deschamps (himself the captain of the 1998 team); and a concerted effort to invest in training academies and scouting over the last decade, an area in which France was sorely lacking with respect to its neighbors. It is also a success for a team representative of France itself, from its countryside to its banlieues—a diverse country, where citizenship is not defined by ethnicity or skin color.
The daily reality is of course more complex. Critics are right to point to the persistence of racism in France. Many citizens of African descent don’t have access to the same opportunities, from jobs to education to nightclubs. A study by the Labor Ministry found 30 percent of companies discriminating during the hiring process. An applicant with a foreign-sounding name will have to look for a job four times as long as a candidate without one.
At the same time, the National Assembly, in the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s win, has never been so diverse, or so gender-equal, in French history. Of course much more can be done to further the cause of equality. But it certainly won’t help to treat our champions like foreigners.