What does France’s World Cup victory mean for the country?

By Dr Jonathan Ervine

The victory of a diverse French football team in this year’s World Cup created many parallels with Les Bleus’ previous success in 1998. Didier Deschamps was at the centre of both triumphs having captained the team in 1998 and managed them in 2018. In many ways, it was a case of plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose.

Just as in 1998, the French footballing media did not demonstrate a universal sense of optimism prior to this year’s tournament. Indeed, this year’s skepticism revolved around similar themes to those which were in evidence prior to the 1998 World Cup in France. Like Aimé Jacquet in 1998, Didier Deschamps this year was charged with being overly conservative and not being at the head of a team whose style of play was not sufficiently exciting to captivate the country, if indeed it could be said that the team had an established style of play.

The idea of iconic French sports teams being associated with a degree of flair or panache is more than just a cliché. The French public regularly expects its leading football teams to produce what is often referred to as football champagne, a form of free-flowing and exciting football, rather than merely grind out hard-earned narrow victories.

The symbolic power of France’s victory in Russia is very similar to that created by their win on home soil twenty years previously. The victory of a team composed of so many players whose parents or grandparents were immigrants, and who grew up in often run-down suburban housing estates known as banlieues, has been held up by politicians and the media as a symbol of a tolerant, diverse, and modern France.

This year has seen the emergence of discourses and powerful symbols that are highly reminiscent of 1998, and they are doubtlessly to be welcomed after several highly turbulent years for France during which the country has faced an increased menace from terrorism.

In 1998, France’s iconic player was Zinedine Zidane. Zidane grew up on the La Castellane housing estate outside Marseille and is the son of Algerian immigrants. This year’s French star was Kylian Mbappe, who is from Bondy (in the outer suburbs of Paris). Mbappe’s father is from Cameroon and his mother is from Algeria.

Images of Zidane and Mbappe being projected onto the Arc de Triomphe following World Cup victories could be potentially seen as a symbol of successful integration in a diverse and modern nation. However, they provide us both with a reminder of how France would like to see itself and, in many ways, also what it is not.

Footballing heroes such as Zidane and Mbappe create something of an illusion, or convenient diversion from more complex realities. For example, France has very few elected politicians from racial or ethnic minorities, or who are Muslim. In 1998, French politicians and the media were quick to celebrate the victory of a team that was described as being black, blanc, beur (black, white and Arab). They portrayed this team as a symbol of the success of France’s model of integration, and a supposedly tolerant and diverse country.

Months before France defended the World Cup in 2002, shockwaves were created by Jean-Marie Le Pen coming second in the country’s presidential election. Within four years of an event that supposedly symbolized inclusivity and tolerance, the leader and founder of a far-right anti-immigration party achieved an unprecedented electoral result. The year before this year’s tournament in Russia, Marine Le Pen stood as the Front National’s presidential candidate. She also came second but the result was anything but a surprise as she capitalized on France’s economic difficulties, disaffection with the political class, and a climate of fear created by terrorist attacks.

Scratch beneath the surface of the upbeat and opportunistic rhetoric about the supposed symbolism of France’s 1998 and 2018 World Cup victories, and more complex – and troubling – realities emerge. In an article for The Conversation in the build-up to this year’s World Cup final, Joseph Downing persuasively made this point in an article entitled ‘Success of French football team masks underlying tensions over race and class’.

Celebrating the success of a football team composed of many players whose presence in France is a consequence of migration is not the same as adopting a positive attitude to immigrants or immigration as a whole. Appealing as the rhetoric surrounding France’s 1998 and 2018 World Cup victories may be, the extent to which there is genuine cause for optimism about where the country is heading is far from clear. France’s 1998 World Cup victory didn’t result in major societal and political changes, and the same is likely to be the case this time round.

The most significant aspect of the 1998 World Cup, which France hosted, is arguably that it helped to re-define the country’s relationship with football. As I argued in the week leading up to this year’s World Cup Final in an article for The Conversation, the role France has played in the establishment of football as an international game provides reason for it to claim that this year’s victory involves ‘football coming home’.

England may widely be seen as the ‘home of football’, but it is sports journalists and administrators from France to whom we owe the existence of the World Cup, the European Championships, and the European Cup (now Champions League). Indeed, FIFA – world football’s governing body – was also founded by a Frenchman.

Neverthless, France is not a country that has embraced football in the same way as many other European countries. Prior to the arrival of cable broadcaster Canal Plus in 1984, precious little domestic football was shown on French television. Despite its size – in terms of both population and surface area – France has relatively few professional football teams. There are three tiers of national leagues: Ligue 1 (20 teams), Ligue 2 (20 teams) and National (18 teams). However, the third tier is essentially only semi-professional and can on occasion also include amateur teams. Teams who are relegated to National from Ligue 2 are allowed to remain professional for a maximum of two years, meaning that there are never more than six professional teams in the league.

Although attendances at domestic football matches in France were boosted by the 1998 World Cup victory, France didn’t take long to start falling out of love with football again. In the run-up to the 2002 World Cup, many French people criticized leading players for the amount of time they appeared to be devoting to commercial activities. This was perhaps a sign of its lack of familiarity with the realities of the very top level of the modern professional came, and the novelty of seeing so many French players widely considered to be among the best in the world.

France were eliminated from the 2002 World Cup in the first round, which led many to question the attitude of leading players. Even though the team would reach the 2006 World Cup Final, its implosion at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa led to yet more soul-searching. Players went on strike immediately before a crucial match due to their dissatisfaction at the expulsion of Nicolas Anelka for insulting national team boss Raymond Domenech. This was in many ways a sign of tensions between the French football team and the media that had been simmering away even before their 1998 World Cup triumph. This is a topic that I have discussed in several previous blog articles (article 1, article 2).

This year’s World Cup victory provides the world with a reminder of how France likes to see itself, and provides France with a reminder that it once again occupies a significant place on the global stage of the so-called ‘beautiful game’. The victory of Les Bleus in Russia may well not change France as a country, but it may have an impact on how the country embraces football. How long such a change may last is, however, unclear.

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