I know this is a highly delicate subject, but I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t a racial under-current to the row about France’s rebellious football team. Most of the French team are black – including Nicolas Anelka, the player who was sent home and Patrice Evra, the captain, who clashed with his fitness trainer and then took part in the boycott of training. Most of the politicians and journalists who are denouncing the team for betraying the nation are white.
When the French team was successful – above all, when it won the World Cup in 1998 – mainstream opinion delighted in the multi-racial character of the team and took it as a symbol of a newly-unified French society. When Jean-Marie Le Pen, the head of the French National Front, criticised the team for having too many non-white players, he was roundly and rightly denounced. Zinedine Zidane, the star of the French team and the son of Alegerian immigrants, remained a national hero, even after he was sent off in the World Cup final of 2006.
And yet racial politics have continued to haunt the French football team. In 2001, there was a public outcry when the French national anthem was greeted with cat-calls at a home game against Algeria – young Frenchmen of North African origin were blamed. Then when Nicolas Sarkozy notoriously referred to rioters in housing estates as “scum”, he was criticised by Lilian Thuram, one of the heroes of the 1998 winning team. Read more