Author: Andrew Hussey
I have been watching the World Cup in France, mainly in the bars and cafes of the lower end of the 14th arrondissement in Paris. This is a mixed neighbourhood that is partly gentrified but also home to council estates with a large immigrant population and the usual low-level social tensions – drugs, gangs, run-ins with the police. So far, however, watching the game has been relatively trouble-free. Each step by the French team towards victory has been followed by good-humoured delirium – flares are set alight, kids walk on the roofs of cars, there is much tooting of horns and showering of beer. The culmination of all these mini-parties came after the team’s victory over Belgium on Tuesday when, as if in response to some secret signal, hundreds and then thousands of fans converged on the Champs-Élysées.
Watching all of this on the news, what was most striking about the fans was not their racial mix, although numerous ethnicities were represented, but how young they were. This is the new generation of millennials for whom the last great French victory in the World Cup is an event from history. A cartoon in Le Parisien said it all: “You’ve got to stop telling us stories from the last century,” young fans tell a portly, middle-aged white male (not unlike myself). The message is clear: this is our World Cup and this is our own triumph to celebrate.
In a sense, they are right. This French team, like Gareth Southgate’s England, are an extremely young team, largely indifferent to the past and not weighed down by history. Some of them, such as the superstar-in-waiting Kylian Mbappé, weren’t even born when France last won the World Cup.
Nonetheless, there has also been a certain nostalgia at work in France, mostly in the media. Most of this nostalgia is harmless. Last week, for example, the daily news programme on TF1, France’s main broadcaster, has been signing off by playing Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. Most people can’t sing the words other than the “la la la” chorus, but this was the crowd’s anthem in 1998 and to French people of a certain age it contains the same emotional charge as Three Lions does in England.
There is, however, another more political memory of the French World Cup team of 1998. This team, it was claimed at the time, was the product of a newly diverse France. The press nicknamed the team génération black, blanc, beur (the black-white-Arab generation). There was much predictable growling from Jean-Marie Le Pen, then leader of the Front National, about their “Frenchness”, but for most people problems of race and identity were lost in the general euphoria. The “Rainbow Team”, led by the talismanic Zinedine Zidane, whose origins were in Algeria, was the future of France.
This moment did not last long and since then French society, under threat from terrorism and its own internal problems, has undoubtedly become more splintered than ever.
This is where the comparison between the French team and Gareth Southgate’s England fails. More to the point, although both teams are ethnically diverse, their social context is still very different. Most importantly, the majority of non-white players in the French team come from the banlieues, the suburbs of French cities that contain large immigrant populations. The banlieues are producing some of the best players in the world, but they can still seem very far away – geographically, economically and culturally – from the mainstream of society.
Most significantly, for all the festive atmosphere surrounding the World Cup, the problems in the banlieueshave not gone away. In the past few weeks, there has been serious rioting on the outskirts of Nantes, after a man was killed by police during a stop-and-search operation. Despite the party mood that followed Tuesday’s semi-final match, there were also confrontations with the police in Nice, Rouen and Paris.
Arguably, this is old-school hooliganism of no real consequence. Le Parisiencertainly sees room for hope. Evoking génération Zidane of 1998, it has nicknamed the young multiracial French millennials génération 2018 and noted that their rallying cry is: “Liberté, égalité, Mbappé”! Sociologists such as Ronan Chastellier, an academic at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris, have been joining in, making the point that this is also the first time the so-called génération Bataclan has been united in joy rather than horror.
From where I’m sitting in southern Paris, it is probably right to be guardedly optimistic. The area where I live has its rough edges and trouble between young people and the police is a fact of life. However, the crowds gathered outside cafes during matches have drawn together lads of all races from the local estate, the arty inhabitants of nearby flats and even the kind of posh old ladies who might have been living here behind lace curtains since the days of Marcel Proust.
It may well be too that the long-running tendency to see French football as a reflection of society, which has been the story since the delusory days of 1998, is over. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether football in Francecan truly be a healing force or whether this is just more wishful thinking and the reality is that we are just living through a truce. But whatever happens in Moscow tonight, there is much more at stake for the current French team and génération 2018 than simply winning the World Cup.