The burning issue of French football

Victory in the 1998 World Cup was hailed as a triumph of multiculturalism but recent rioting has reawakened the debate about opportunity and prejudice in the run-down banlieus. Now France's footballers have spoken out about the troubles
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Considering the splash headline in yesterday's L'Equipe, you might not have expected much debate in the offices of Toutes Les Nouvelles over what to feature on their own front page this week.

France's daily sports newspaper focused on the "embarras du choix" facing Raymond Domenech, the national football coach, following the impressive return of Nicolas Anelka in a 3-2 victory over Costa Rica on Wednesday. As France prepare to face Germany in a high-profile friendly at the Stade de France tonight, Domenech knows that Anelka offers an alternative to his established strikers, Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Djibril Cissé.

Toutes Les Nouvelles is the local newspaper for Yvelines, a district containing some grim Parisian suburbs to the south-west of the capital. Anelka, who until this week had not played for France for three years, is the local hero. He grew up here in Trappes, a town of bleak apartment blocks and high unemployment where more than half the population are under 25, and is the most famous old boy of FC Trappes St Quentin. Most of the families who live here came originally from north and west Africa or other parts of France's former empire.

Anelka's parents arrived 31 years ago from Martinique, in the French West Indies, where Wednesday's international was played.

However, only one story has dominated the French media for the past fortnight. The main photograph on the front page of Toutes Les Nouvelles shows a line of 23 burnt-out buses at the local depot, the vehicles having been set alight by rioters. The inside pages tell a sorry tale of flaming cars and dustbins, power cuts, smoke damage and residents evacuated for their own safety.

Recent events will do little to help the local authorities' attempts to shake off Trappes' image as one of the bleakest and most crime-ridden of the Parisian suburbs. One campaign saw the council put up posters which proclaimed Trappes as la ville qui bouge ("the town on the move"). They were soon defaced to read la ville qui tue ("the town which kills").

Anelka lived in an area called the Plaine de Neauphle, where the place names - Rue Gustave Flaubert, Allée Arthur Rimbaud, Rond-point François Mitterand - tell you everything about the attempt to impose French culture. In Rue Anatole France, not far from the former Anelka family home, black smoke marks on a wall are evidence of an attempt to firebomb the main tax office, which stands opposite what appears to be the only new building in the area, the Centre Islamiste de Trappes.

Considering both his background and the country's current troubles, there is irony in Anelka's return to a team preparing to face next year's World Cup hosts at the scene of French football's finest hour. Victory over Brazil at the Stade de France in the 1998 World Cup final, with players from an exotic mix of racial backgrounds, was hailed as a triumph of multiculturalism, proof that French people of contrasting ethnic backgrounds could work together.

In particular, it seemed to show that it was possible for ambitious young people to progress from the bleak banlieues to make a success of their lives. Zinedine Zidane, a son of Algerian immigrants, grew up in La Castellane, one of the toughest parts of Marseilles. Lilian Thuram's family settled in the Parisian suburbs after arriving from the West Indies.

Many of the current team are from similar backgrounds. Eric Abidal comes from the La Duchère district of Lyon, while several players, including Henry and Patrick Vieira, grew up in the Parisian banlieues. In some recent France matches, there have been only two white players of European descent in the side.

The events of the past fortnight and reaction to them have saddened and angered many of the French team, who are generally more politicised than their British counterparts. Although Henry has refused to discuss the situation in the banlieues, other players have not held back.

"I grew up in the suburbs and I feel very close to these youths," Thuram said. "The situation makes me sick. Nobody is asking the right questions. Nobody is trying to look at the real problems. It's always the same. It's always the fault of the youngsters in the suburbs. I don't believe it's gratuitous violence.

"You need to ask why, to stop putting people in boxes in nasty suburbs. The most dangerous people are not those who are messing up the suburbs. You need to think deeply about the root causes. The real political debate is how to live together, how to provide jobs. That's fundamental. When people have jobs, there are fewer problems."

Thuram criticised the government of Dominique de Villepin. "They are trying to convince the public that these people are nothing but rioters, which is not the truth," he said. "They are trying to find a scapegoat as they are unable to find a solution to the job problems."

Florent Malouda, the 25-year-old Lyon and France striker, said the riots had been inevitable. "People in the suburbs are desperate and it was always going to come to this," he said. Abidal, his Lyon team mate, recalled his own experience: "When I was in La Duchère there was a supermarket there, but they refused to hire people from our neighbourhood. I can understand that people are fed up seeing things like that."

Carine Bloch, vice-president of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, believes that France's problem is that it has not followed football's lead. "In most of our leading professional clubs the majority of the players are either black or of north African background," she said. "The same is true of the national team. In amateur clubs, particularly those from the big-city suburbs, it's a similar picture. The national team are also very good role models. They're successful and they're also well-educated, polite and speak well.

"They brought the country together by winning the World Cup and European Championship. You often saw people holding two flags - maybe the French flag and the Algerian flag. These people have a sense of double identity and I don't see any problem in that. Some now say that the World Cup was just an illusion, but I don't agree. It was proof of what can be achieved. The problem was that politicians didn't learn from it.

"There are very few other walks of life in France in which people from immigrant families, living in the suburbs, have been successful. Just about the only examples we can show to youngsters are sports people, particularly footballers, and singers. Where are the successful lawyers, politicians and businessmen from the suburbs?"

Trappes is a case in point. After Anelka, the only other national figure to emerge from the town's estates is the actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze, whose younger brother was in the same class as Anelka. Debbouze, from a Moroccan family, was until recently president of FC Trappes, with Anelka an honorary president.

Mustapha Larbaoui, the current president, is meeting Anelka next week. He wants to thank him both for the example he has set and for a €40,000 (£27,000) windfall following his sale by Manchester City to Fenerbahce - the club, which runs 29 teams and has more than 600 players aged between seven and 70, will spend the money on new shirts.

"People remember Anelka because he was a good kid," Labaoui said. "He was very popular. He always worked very hard, whether it was here, at the national football centre at Clairefontaine or at any of his clubs."

Larbaoui, whose parents came to France from Algeria, enforces strict discipline. "You can't win football matches unless you have a strong team which observes good discipline," he said. "We try to teach youngsters how to play football and how to be part of a bigger organisation. It teaches them what it's like to work for a company. It's a way of preparing them for their future lives.

"Sport gives you pride and dignity. When the youngsters are playing for Trappes, they're playing for their local pride. If they win their match, it's something the whole community can be proud of. There's probably not much in Trappes of which people can feel proud because this is a poor and violent place, but if you can help your town's football team to win a match then that's a source of pride.

"The trouble is that some of the rioters have the same motives, albeit misplaced. They see a television report showing three cars on fire in a neighbouring suburb and they go out and try to torch five cars. Most of them are only kids, and 99 per cent of the people here are decent and law-abiding. People compare this to 1968, but the kids who are rioting here aren't politically motivated like the students were in '68."

The indiscriminate nature of some of the violence supports Larbaoui's point. Gymnasiums and stadiums, often the only leisure resources available to youngsters in the suburbs, have been attacked.

At Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the Parisian suburbs worst hit by the violence, dressing-rooms and a smart new synthetic football pitch used by youngsters from the CSL-Aulnay club have gone up in smoke.

However, if football has been a beacon for the rest of France in the past, Bloch sounds a warning for the future.

"I believe we have a big problem with Islamic fundamentalists infiltrating amateur football clubs," she said. "We did a major survey of nearly 600 cities and towns and 15 per cent of them said that fundamentalists had been recruiting at amateur football clubs in their area. I'm sure the actual figure is a lot higher than this because it's very hard to detect. The infiltrators aren't interested in football. They join the clubs and then get to work recruiting other club members.

"I suspect this is linked to what has been happening all over the country in the last fortnight. There is evidence that the violence involving young people has been stirred up by fundamentalists. A lot of the violence is very well organised."

Larbaoui, who is concerned by what he sees as a very male-dominated culture in Trappes, has appointed women as secretary and treasurer of the club. "I don't have any proof that there's been an attempt to infiltrate the club, but I know it's happening," he said. "That's one of the reasons why I've appointed the women. I wanted to send out a message."