Sacrés Bleus!

Coby Lubliner

When I was young and tried to be clever, I came up, after spending a postdoctoral year in France, with a line that I enjoyed throwing away: “The only generalization you can make about the French is that you can’t generalize about the French.”

I am no longer young, though I still try to be clever. But I now understand that my boutade requires an explanation, which in a way negates it. The reason you can’t generalize about the French, I find myself forced to argue, is that they’re too individualistic; but that in itself is a generalization, so... At any rate, as I reread an essay that I wrote last November, I find several statements that can be construed as generalizations about the French.

These contradictory thoughts were going through my mind when I saw les Bleus, France’s national football (soccer) team which won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Europe Cup, ignominiously eliminated from the 2002 World Cup (for which it qualified automatically as defending champions) without scoring a single goal.

Team sports, soccer in particular, don’t loom nearly as large in France’s mass culture as they do elsewhere in Europe. With the exception of Michel Platini, France’s athletic heroes have been her tennismen (and “tenniswomen”), boxers, skiers, bicyclists and the like. Streets, schools and sports centers are named for the likes of Henri Lacoste or Suzanne Lenglen, Marcel Cerdan or Jean-Claude Killy, Louison Bobet or Jacques Anquetil.

Now, one might argue that a bicycle race like the Tour de France – by far the most important event on the French sports calendar – is really a race among teams. But a team of anonymous riders whose job it is to help propel its star to victory is not the same as a team of more-or-less equal participants (though some may be more equal than others) working together for victory. It is more like the team of lawyers who compiled the Code Napoléon, or the team of engineers and workers who built la tour Eiffel. (While the naming of inventions for their creators happens everywhere, it is endemic in France, where the hot-air balloon was dubbed montgolfière, the early photograph daguerréotype, the tire-mounted light-rail vehicle micheline, and so on.)

The relatively low position of soccer in French life is the reason why so few of the best players work professionally in France (on this year’s national team, only five out of 23); they can earn vastly higher salaries in England, Germany, Italy and Spain (where Zinedine Zidane, France’s undisputed superstar, is the world’s highest-paid player, earning over ten million dollars with Real Madrid). By contrast, these four countries’ national teams consist almost entirely of players in their national leagues.

But what is even more striking about les Bleus is how few of them are indigenous French; well over half are immigrants or colonials, or sons thereof. The diverse racial makeup of the 1998 championship team – whites, blacks and North Africans (blanc-black-beur) – was a source of pride and joy to progressive-minded French people who previously might not have paid much attention to le foot, but who were happy to brandish the banner of the successful team as a symbol of French unity against the divisive nativism preached by Jean-Marie Le Pen.

I spent the Cup season of 1998 traveling around southern Europe, watching matches in hotel rooms, bars and cafés from Barcelona to Istanbul. I made a point of booking my flight from Sofia to Paris for July 13, the day after the Cup finals (which I saw in Blagoevgrad), to avoid any possible riots that might have happened if, say, England or Germany had been finalists. What I found, on the eve of Bastille Day, was a France in the throes of euphoria.

I had visited France at least a dozen times in the forty preceding years. I have almost invariably enjoyed my visits, and I regard myself as an unabashed Francophile. Unlike many other travelers, I find the French pleasant to be around. But never before had I found them as pleasant as in that summer of la Coupe. They celebrated their team’s victory with humor and grace. At a July 14th parade in the lovely medieval town of Fougères in Brittany, the folk dancers seemed far more prominent than the military band, and people joked that “We are the Champions” should replace the Marseillaise as the national anthem.

It was only the year before that the leftist alliance (la gauche plurielle) led by the socialist Lionel Jospin had won the parliamentary elections. As elsewhere in Europe (and in North America), this leftist government was not only far more concerned about the environment, working people and civil rights than the rightist one that it succeeded, but it was also more friendly to immigrants and minorities, and it responded to the already strong movement of solidarity with undocumented immigrants (les sans-papiers) by legalizations on a large scale.

Well, that was then. Since then, an anti-immigrant wave has been sweeping across Europe, directed most intensely against those of Muslim background (who are the overwhelming majority of immigrants in France), and toppling socialist-led governments even in such progressive bastions as Denmark and the Netherlands. But nowhere else was the shock as violent as in France, where Le Pen came in second in the presidential election and knocked Jospin out of political life.

France’s fate in the first round of the World Cup could not have fitted the Le Pen scheme better. The two teams that defeated France and went on into the second phase, leaving France in the dust, were, first, all-black Senegal – as if to justify Le Pen’s claim that he is not a racist, but only wants the immigrants (especially Africans) back in their home countries (never mind that the overwhelming majority of the Senegal team, 21 out of 23, live and play professionally in France, whether as “legal” immigrants or as dual citizens) – and, second, all-white Denmark. The tie came with the racially mixed, and also eventually eliminated, Uruguay team.

What struck me about les Bleus’ performance was the dispirited way in which they played. Zidane – whose sensational goal against Bayer Leverkusen gave Real Madrid the European Champions’ League title in mid-May – was injured in a pre-Cup game, and did not play in the first two matches. In pre-competition analyses, however, the French team – ranked first in world standings – was considered to be strong enough to field two teams, and such stars as Lizarazu (of Bayern Munich), Henry (of Arsenal), Desailly and Petit (both of Chelsea), and Thuram and Trezeguet (of Juventus), not to mention the great goalie Barthez (of Manchester United), should have been able easily to carry the team at least into the second round.

A collection of great players, however, doesn’t always make a great team, as Barcelona and AC Milan have shown in recent years. The French team was clearly built to work around Zidane, and a Zidane in top form: when he rejoined the team for the third game, clearly not fully recovered, France suffered its worst defeat (2-0 against Denmark).

But I find it hard to discount another possibility: that the spirit of pride in France’s ethnic diversity, which the team has symbolized, was dealt a fatal blow by Le Pen’s performance in the elections, and that this blow was inevitably felt by the players.

July 26, 2002

© 2002 by Jacob Lubliner

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