A victory for France in the Euros could bring together a society divided by racial tension

What if the new generation of ‘Les Bleus’ (who are 50 per cent black players) win the European championship? Will that change the mood about race and migration in France? 

John Lichfield
Saturday 09 July 2016 13:56
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French football fans celebrate following Thursday’s semi-final win against Germany
French football fans celebrate following Thursday’s semi-final win against Germany

When France scored a second goal against Germany in the Euros 2016 semi-final, a television camera zoomed in on the joyous, disbelieving face of an ageing fan in an outsized France scarf. Like a small boy, he turned and gave a delighted shove to his neighbour.

The fan was President François Hollande. The man he shoved was the president of the French football federation, Noel Le Graet.

The video of the incident has gone viral on French social media. Many commentaries suggest that President Hollande’s delight was selfish. The least popular French leader of modern times hoped that a home victory by “Les Bleus” in the Euro 2016 final might help him to win re-election next spring.

Giroud Confident in French Team Ahead of Germany Match

That is unfair. Mr Hollande is a great football fan. In any case, he looks beyond electoral redemption.

All the same, much is riding on the final. After 17 horrendous months of jihadist attacks, advances by the far right, strikes, economic stagnation and floods, a victory over Portugal would bring joyous relief to France.

The former France full back Lilian Thuram said: “Nothing generates popular emotion like football. Nothing in the world feels better than everyone being happy together.”

Mr Thuram should know. He was part of the “white, brown and black” team which won a “home” victory for France in the 1998 World Cup.

The triumph caused an economic boom and raised hopes of a new multi-racial understanding in France. Neither the boom nor the hopes lasted for very long.

Within three years, the xenophobic far right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of a presidential election. Within seven years, France was wracked by riots in the poor multi-racial suburbs of almost all its large towns and cities.

What if the new generation of “Les Bleus” (who are 50 per cent black players) win the European championship? Will that change the mood about race and migration in France? Will a new, alienated generation of black and ethnic minority children from the poor suburbs feel lasting pride in being French?

Unlike her father, who poured scorn on the 1998 team, the new far right leader, Marine Le Pen, is hedging her bets. Having previously denied all interest in football, she sent out a joyful tweet after France’s 2-0 semi-final victory over Germany on Thursday.

For the record, the France squad includes 11 black players, ten white players, one of North African origin and one from the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Only three were born outside France.

The excited crowd which blocked the Champs Elysée after the game was almost as multi-racial as the team. The youths who stayed on into the early hours to throw missiles at the riot police were mostly kids of North African origin from the poor suburbs which ring the city proper.

It was as if they, like Ms Le Pen, were hedging their bets. They wanted to share in the joy of victory.

They also wanted to remind France that little has been done to make them feel French in the last 18 years.

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