I will never forget the joy and solidarity that followed France’s 2018 World Cup victory. I watched in Paris, and when the game ended with a 4-2 win over Croatia, we all rushed into the streets, flares burning, jumping and hugging. Someone pulled out a sound system and started blaring the team’s adopted anthem, “Magic in the Air,” turning the plaza where I stood into a flag-festooned dance party. The celebrations continued into the next day as crowds converged on the Champs-Élysées to watch the team descend the avenue.
But for all the joy of that moment, we couldn’t quite celebrate the way people had the last time France won the World Cup, in 1998. Then, there was a utopian hope that tournament victory by a team made up of the children of immigrants could help overcome racism in the country. By 2018, we knew better.
International football, as the writer Clint Smith recently noted, invites us to imagine countries not so much as they are but as they might be. During the World Cup, players literally embody their nations. Their actions take on symbolic meaning because they reflect and refract their societies. The story of the French team in recent decades, and of the debates that have surrounded it, helps us understand the shifts that are remaking the country’s national identity — and where limitations remain.
The 1998 team was celebrated for the histories it brought together — Caribbean, West African, Algerian, Armenian, all of them French, too. It felt like a new model for what France could be. Lilian Thuram, born in Guadeloupe, and Zinedine Zidane, a child of Algerian migrants who grew up in the housing projects of Marseille, scored winning goals. They became national icons.
The team’s strength and unity served as a bold message to a country where citizenship has long been equated with cultural similarity and a society that generally eschews hyphenated identities. The victory was also a riposte to Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party, who two years earlier attacked the team as being made up of “foreigners” and “fake Frenchmen.” Mr. Thuram in particular used his platform to become a prominent voice against racism and a critic of the government’s approaches to policing and immigration.
But as the glow from the ’98 win wore off, it became clear that a trophy in the hands of a multicultural team wasn’t going to change France’s racial dynamics, nationally or even in football. Karim Benzema, one of France’s star strikers, said in 2011: “When I score, I’m French, when I don’t, or when there’s a problem, I’m Arab.” The previous year, the leadership of the French Football Federation had discussed a plan to limit the number of players of African and North African descent being recruited at the youth level. When these conversations were leaked to the press, many were shocked to learn that the manager of the national team participated in them.
That manager was replaced in 2012 by Didier Deschamps, who had captained the 1998 team and became known for fostering unity within it. In 2018, he had put together a majority-Black roster, stocked with some of the most remarkable football talents on the planet. Alongside Paul Pogba, the team’s captain, whose parents emigrated from Guinea, played the young phenom Kylian Mbappé, whose mother is from Algeria and father is from Cameroon, and the brilliant midfielder N’Golo Kanté, whose parents came from Mali.
As the 2018 World Cup approached, the far right didn’t publicly attack the team. Doing so seemed like a potential political liability. That may be because for many French people, particularly those in younger generations, the multiculturalism long demonized by the right is now simply reality. The family stories of many of these players are increasingly part of the fabric of French life.
Celebrating at the presidential palace after the World Cup, Mr. Kanté sat alongside his mother, who wore a veil, and greeted Mr. Pogba with a “salaam aleikum.” Given the Islamophobia in France, this moment was striking because of how natural it seemed. The players broadcast a sense of ease about being African, French and Muslim all at once.
These players embody what some scholars and activists now call “Black France,” arguing that the nation needs to acknowledge the central place of Africa and the Caribbean in its history and future. As the French feminist writer and scholar Maboula Soumahoro put it in a recent memoir, this is a simple demand for recognition: “I, too, am France.”
But there is still strong resistance. This year, Marine Le Pen, the heir to her father Jean-Marie’s far-right party, won more than 13 million votes in her bid for president. Demands for the acceptance of France’s racial diversity are consistently met with accusations from across the political spectrum that they threaten to divide and undermine the Republic. Even as they mutate, racism and the legacy of colonialism continue to shape French culture.
Surely, some of the same people who voted for Ms. Le Pen also cheered when France beat Australia, Denmark and Poland in Qatar and will be rooting for a victory when France faces England on Saturday. It is surprisingly easy, even for those who express explicitly racist views, to support Black athletes when it suits them. But the accumulated experience of supporting and celebrating the national team can nevertheless help bring about the “change in our collective imagination” that Mr. Thuram advocates in his writings and with the work of his antiracism foundation. Through their successes, the nation’s athletes offer a positive vision of how diversity is a strength for the team, and by extension for France — in the process nourishing new ways of thinking about what the nation is and can be.
France entered this year’s World Cup missing several players from 2018, including Mr. Pogba, because of a string of injuries. But Mr. Mbappé has returned, alongside other veterans from 2018 and new players, including Moussa Dembélé, Aurélien Tchouaméni, Dayot Upamecano and Marcus Thuram, Lilian Thuram’s son.
In its first two games, France lit up the pitch with the kind of flowing, joyous play that has secured the team fans all over the world. Now it is headed into the quarterfinals, where it will face England. Mr. Mbappé has been its star and already scored five goals. As the newspaper Libération put it, France is “sailing on his wings” as the team moves through the tournament as one of its favorites.
Back in France this year, the debate has been less about the team than about the tournament itself.
The mayors of many major French cities opted not to set up the usual public viewing areas to protest the corruption and human rights abuses associated with the tournament, and activists in some cities have gone as far as to use special remote controls to turn off televisions in bars showing the games. But if France’s form continues, it seems likely this initial reticence around the tournament will cede to the irresistible buzz and joy of a good run at the World Cup and a new round of enthusiasm for the team’s players. Of course, as Mr. Benzema might remind us, that can always change based on what happens next.
As I cheer for the French team, I am also rooting for a France that ultimately confronts and embraces all its complex histories, and sees them as a source of collective strength and possibility. Speaking to his teammates before the 2018 final, Mr. Pogba made clear that they, and by implication the communities they belong to, are all a constitutive part of the country’s future: “Tonight, I want us to become part of the memories of all the French people who are watching us. And of their kids, their grandkids, even their great-grandkids.”
Laurent Dubois (@soccerpolitics) is a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of “The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer.”
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