The victory of a racially diverse French football team in the France ‘98 World Cup was heralded as a sign of a tolerant modern France. Almost two decades on, and a very different vision is emerging as France prepares to host the 2016 European Championships.
Last month, Eric Cantona controversially suggested that national coach Didier Deschamps may have omitted Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from France’s Euro 2016 squad due to their race. In an interview with Spanish sports newspaper Marca, Benzema also accused Deschamps of “giving into pressure from a racist part of France”, while comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze argued that Benzema and Ben Arfa were “paying for the social situation of France today”.
But do Cantona’s claims stand up to scrutiny? Dominique Sopo, head of French anti-racist organisation SOS-Racisme, accused Benzema of “egotistically” taking an interest in racism for the first time. Former France player and 1998 World Cup winner Marcel Desailly questioned Cantona’s credibility and French Football Federation branded Cantona’s claims as “ridiculous”. Deschamps has threatened legal action.
Arguably, it is actually Ben Arfa rather than Benzema who is more unlucky to have been left out. Despite a somewhat wayward career, Ben Arfa has been one of the stars of France’s Ligue 1 with Nice this year. His 18 goals and seven assists played a big role in the largely unfancied team finishing fourth.
In purely sporting terms, Benzema may also feel unlucky after scoring 28 goals for Real Madrid this season. But he is also a player who has not always reproduced his club form at international level.
In addition, he has also been making headlines for off-field matters after allegations – yet to be heard in court – that he was involved in attempts to blackmail international teammate Mathieu Valbuena over an alleged sex tape. While the French Football Federation has said that “sporting performance is an important factor but not the only one” when it comes to selecting the squad, it has previously commented that the allegations were not damaging to the sport’s image in the run-up to the championship.
A beautiful game?
The “affaire Benzema” reminds of previous controversies that have tainted the French national football team. In 2011, senior figures from the French Football Federation reportedly discussed potentially limiting the number of black and North African players in training academies. Then national team boss Laurent Blanc was part of the discussions, but exonerated of any wrong-doing by federation bosses.
One may well ask what has gone wrong for the French football team since 1998. In the short term, their success continued with victory in the 2000 European Championships. Since then, problems have surfaced both on and off the pitch.
The celebrating of the “black, blanc, beur team” of 1998 glossed over certain realities. The West African, white European and North African roots of the team masked divisions within France. Indeed, there was much talk of “la fracture sociale” (social division) in 1990s France.
When France defended their World Cup title in 2002, they were eliminated in the first round. This was also the year when the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked many by reaching the second round of France’s presidential elections.
With the exception of the 2006 World Cup, France have arguably disappointed at all the major finals they have reached from 2002 onwards. Teams have displayed potential but not the overall cohesion and individual flair of the 1998 generation.
Criticism from all corners
The behaviour of French footballers has also been criticised by politicians and journalists on several occasions. This reached a peak at the 2010 World Cup when the French squad refused to train following the exclusion of Nicolas Anelka for insulting team boss Raymond Domenech. Players have subsequently been under pressure to both perform on the pitch and behave off the pitch.
However, tense relations between the French football team and the media can be traced back further. Even in 1998, national team boss Aimé Jacquet was frustrated at the negativity of sports paper L’Equipe preceding the tournament.
In 2012, French football magazine So Foot argued that France was a “country that has never understood anything about football” to explain “why France doesn’t like its footballers”. These comments may sound sensationalist, but many French intellectuals and politicians showed little interest in football prior to 1998.
After 2015 was bookended by the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015 and terrorist attacks in Paris last November, French morale is clearly in need of a lift. The Stade de France, as a location targeted by terrorists in the latter attack, takes on a particular significance as it hosts the opening and closing games.
Some may ask if the current generation of French footballers is capable of providing the nation with this lift. However, this is perhaps not the right question to ask. Instead, it is worth considering to what extent footballers should be held responsible for the national mood in such troubling times.
French footballers are at times easy scapegoats and their behaviour has not always been impeccable in recent years. However, focusing on their misdemeanours risks diverting attention away from social, political and economic challenges that France is facing.