Political football: Macron banking on France's World Cup success
Tuesday 10/July/2018 - 12:06 PM
"The Guardian" newspaper- By "Angelique Chrisafis":
When Emmanuel Macron travels to St Petersburg to watch France play Belgium in the World Cup semi-final، it is in the knowledge that French football mania can yield political capital.
The last and only time that France won the World Cup – 20 years ago in 1998 – approval ratings rose for the then troubled rightwing president، Jacques Chirac، despite the fact he didn’t know half the team’s names.
Even before Tuesday night’s game، the 40-year-old centrist Macron، who is struggling to rid himself of the label “president of the rich”، has presented himself as a diehard fan. He has highlighted his support for the southern team Olympique Marseille، appeared on a TV football show، addressed the squad on confidence and teamwork in a pre-tournament visit and confessed of his childhood: “I played left-back. I was nasty though not very skilful. On the pitch، I was the sort that would not let go and would motivate the others.” If France were to win the cup، it would suit the pro-business Macron’s slogan: “France is back”.
But، separate from politics، the young and ethnically diverse French team has already lifted the nation’s mood. Commentators have described Les Bleus، one of the youngest squads in the tournament، as “accessible، decent، nice and humble”. While the French state still grapples to find solutions to racial discrimination and inequality in high-rise suburbs، the French football team has been hailed for showing a real banlieue spirit: showcasing the ambition of a high-achieving young generation in the suburbs backed by their supportive families.
A number of the team’s top players come from the banlieue outside Paris and began their sporting lives in the excellent local youth teams، which have proved fertile ground for talent-spotters.
The 19-year-old goal-scorer and national hero Kylian Mbappé is from Bondy in Seine-Saint-Denis، north of Paris، where he was a star of the local club. His father، who is of Cameroonian descent، once played in the same local team. His mother، of Algerian descent، was a professional handball player. His family are his main advisers and he is donating his international match fees to a charity that organises sports for children with disabilities. Paul Pogba also comes from the area outside Paris. N’Golo Kanté (who has inspired the slogan “Yes We Kanté!”) was born in Paris but started playing for a club on the outskirts.
For the quarter-final match against Uruguay، Macron pointedly invited young teenage players from banlieue clubs and schools to watch the match with him in the Elysée Palace gardens as he sat on the grass with them in his shirtsleeves.
The writer Abdourahman A Waberi said the nation’s huge support for Mbappé – “the child of Bondy” – and his teammates had already scored a victory against the anti-immigration far-right stance of Marine Le Pen and the rightwing French intellectuals that dominate parts of the media.
The issue of ethnic diversity and a football team that reflects society has been historically important in France. But 20 years ago in 1998، when Zinedine Zidane’s diverse team was labelled “black، blanc، beur” and hailed as an answer to all of French society’s ills، there was no overnight miracle solution to the country’s deep-seated race relation questions، discrimination and identity issues.
“The politicians thought they had solved all the problems through football،” the anti-racism campaigner Mouloud Aounit said later. “In fact، the effect lasted about as long as the fireworks.”
Four years after the team’s victory، the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen — who had complained there were too many black people in the squad — made it to the final round of the 2002 presidential election. In 2005، when two teenagers، Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré، were electrocuted when they hid in a substation north of Paris while being chased by police، the suburbs erupted in the worst rioting in France for 40 years. In 2011، French football was mired in crisis after claims that officials tried to limit the number of black and Arab players on youth training schemes to make the French team more white.
The former Socialist French president François Hollande last month warned politicians against expecting sport to answer political problems. He said of 1998’s success: “We wanted to draw the conclusion that this victory would change French society. It didn’t change it. It’s up to politicians to change it.”