France's crisis of national identity

The country's failure to come to terms with its ethnic mix has been exposed by events on the football field, says John Lichfield

Just before the France-Ireland football match in Paris, I met my charming, gentle, retired, 60-something, French neighbour on the stairs of our Paris apartment building. "No," he said. "I'm not watching the match. I never watch France play football. The team disgusts me because they are not really French."

What did he mean, I asked (although I knew exactly what he meant). My neighbour mumbled something about not liking the team because they didn't sing the Marseillaise before matches (something that has not been true for more than a decade). What he really meant was that there were too many non-white faces in the line-up (seven out of 11). I pointed out that every single France player in the now infamous main de Dieu World Cup qualifying team was born in France and mostly in Greater Paris. He looked embarrassed, made a "so what" hand gesture and walked away.

The match was won by a brilliant dribble by one of the players whom my neighbour does not regard as French. Unfortunately, Thierry Henry (born in Ulis, near Paris, of parents from the West Indian "overseas departéments" of France) dribbled the ball with his hand, not his foot. He has since been contrite when it suited him. He has tried, while preserving the advantage that he unfairly gained, to preserve his too-smart-and-nice-to-be-a-footballer reputation. Some people might say that his attitude was very French indeed.

That same night thousands of young people from the poorer suburbs of Greater Paris poured on to the Champs Elysées to celebrate the fact that their country had qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa next summer. These were French kids, born in France, but they were not celebrating France's morally-challenged victory over Ireland. They were celebrating – boisterously, and at times violently – Algeria's victory over Egypt in Algiers.

In yesterday's Libération newspaper, a young French man of North African origin, a student at Sciences-Po, the Paris equivalent of the LSE, told an untold story of that night. He and many other young people left the Champs Elysées to avoid the scattered scenes of violence. They were attacked by squadrons of CRS riot police as they celebrated peacefully at Porte Maillot a kilometre away. Anyss Arbib, 21, described how he was sprayed in the face with tear gas by a riot policeman who screamed: "Get out of here you dirty Arab."

"I couldn't find a way to explain to him that I was at least as French as he was," Mr Arbib said.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has just launched a debate on "national identity" in France. He wants the nation to consider what it means to be French in 2009; what the French should be proud of; why they should regard Frenchness as an honour. He has ordered every prefect (senior national government administrator) in every departément in France to organise village and town hall meetings on this theme.

Opposition politicians have dismissed the initiative as cynical and dangerous: an attempt to shift the national conversation to Mr Sarkozy's favourite subjects – flag-waving and security – as he wallows in the mid to late 30s in the opinion polls. They point out that the President faces potentially humiliating, mid-term regional elections next spring.

Mr Sarkozy has dismissed these objections as "ostrich politics". "By trying to rub out the Nation for fear of nationalism, we have provoked an identity backlash," he said. "By abandoning what we stand for, we have ended up not knowing who we are. By encouraging self-hatred, we have closed the doors to the future."

I have lived in France for almost 13 years. I adore France and I adore the French. I have to admit, however, that I have found the events of recent days – Sarko's crusade, Henry's handball, my neighbour's comments, the celebrations by French-born Algeria fans and the brutal response of the CRS – rather unsettling.

Eleven years ago, I was one of those who wrote admiringly of the Brown-White-Black France which won the World Cup. I, and many others, suggested that their victory might soften race relations in France; that other brown and black French kids might be encouraged to feel French; that white French kids would grow up with brown and black French heroes.

Since then, we have learned better. We have had the racist Jean-Marie Le Pen's qualification for the final round of the presidential election in 2002. We have had the suburban riots of November 2005.

President Sarkozy cannot easily be labelled a racist. He is the first French President to promote politicians from racial minorities. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, did little in this direction. Mr Chirac has been caught out on a video clip this week making an unthinkingly and mildly racist remark after shaking hands in the street with a young man of North African origin.

The opposition is probably right. National identity is a hot-button issue that Mr Sarkozy wants to exploit rather than to explore. His actions are often dictated by short-term, selfish, look-at-me motives, rather than anything more considered or profound.

And yet the events of recent days suggest that President Sarkozy is right. France needs a debate on national identity, starting with an honest debate about national identity and race. Why do all those French kids of Algerian background support the Algeria football team? After being marginalised by society and abused by police all of their young lives, it might be more sensible to ask another question. How is it that many of them, on another night, would also have cheered for France?

At the same time, Mr Sarkozy might ponder the volume and shrillness of the reaction, not just in Ireland and Britain, but all around the world, to Henry's successful hand-dribble. What annoyed many people was not just the incident itself but Henry's behaviour afterwards. He celebrated madly and then told the referee that it was foul, when it was too late to change the outcome. He commiserated with Irish players but refused to accept that the handball was deliberate. He wanted to have things both ways.

It seems to me that the Henry incident caused such a global furore partly because the team that benefited was France. Seen from abroad, rightly or wrongly, the French are viewed as a nation that likes to ignore rules (from nuclear tests to priority for pedestrians) and, at the same time, maintain a rather high-flown opinion of themselves.

They want to be the nation of human rights but to mumble under their breath about black French footballers not being French. They want, like Chirac, to be a champion of the Third World but to be mildly racist. They want the French West Indies to be French but not the French West Indians, like Henry's parents. They want to have it both ways.

There are many other, wonderful things to say about the French, just as there other, wonderful things to say about Henry. But on the evidence of the last few days, whatever my neighbour might say, Henry's national identity could only be French.

France in numbers

Ethnic minorities:

3.264m North African (5.23%)

1.080m Sub-Saharan African (1.73%)

441,000 Turkish (0.71%)

757,000 French overseas departéments and territories (1.21%)

It is illegal in France for a census to be taken on race or religion – these figures are an estimate by Solis, a marketing company. The percentages are of mainland France, which has a population of 62,400,000.

Religions:

83%-88% Roman Catholic

2% Protestant

1% Jewish

5%-10% Muslim

4% Unaffiliated

Source: CIA World Factbook

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