France’s embrace of its black footballers will not last

Non-white French communities will be celebrated, but World Cup euphoria will subside and racism will remain

 

 

On Sunday, France won the World Cup for the second time in its history, beating Croatia 4-2. Memories of that first triumph, in 1998, were everywhere apparent. Two decades ago, Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and Thierry Henry were among the stars who propelled France to victory.

In 2018, Kylian Mbappe, N’Golo Kante, Samuel Umtiti and Paul Pogba were among the sons of former French colonies starring for their nation. Now, as then, this was a team built on immigrants and the descendants of immigrants.

Respect and dignity

More than any of its other sports teams, France’s football team represents its nation’s past and present attitude toward immigration and the colonial past. I hear that we French citizens of the African diaspora have got to support France because the majority of the players are of African descent. I am told to express solidarity in the name of blackness or Africanness. The idea is that out of this team’s victory, a tolerant society could emerge.

But how could this World Cup victory contribute to changing our collective experience in a still-imperial France?

When the euphoria fades away, things will quickly regress to normality. France will always be France: an imperial nation whose greed, racism and cruelty know no boundaries

Just as in the aftermath of the 1998 victory, the black and brown diaspora will be accorded a new level of humanity, treated as part of the French family. This new deal will not last long, but in the meantime we will be the centre of attention, and for glorious reasons.

Many of us will be promoted in all areas of life, with hassle-free access to public and private spaces. We’ll simply enjoy the lightness of being white. Over several weeks, maybe months, the whole of France will look like a fairytale. It will be a modern version of La Belle et la Bete – Beauty and the Beast. We, naturally, are the Beast.

With this victory, some of us might even hold a virtual white privilege card without going through the unbearable acts of changing the tone of our voice, our accent, our dress code, our beliefs or even our skin colour in a hopeless attempt to fit in. Blackness will be the sexy thing. Racism will be on hold, at least for the time it takes the euphoric moment to subside.

Our neighbours and colleagues will look at us with an embarrassed smile, an acknowledgment of our existence, a semblance of apology for what they’ve been secretly thinking about us since we arrived in the neighbourhood.

‘Positive’ racism

Positive racism will abound. “You black people are made for sport,” our colleagues will say, exposing the true racist self hiding behind the liberal discourse of tolerance. And we, people of faith and humanity, will display a self-satisfied smirk. We will fool ourselves. We will believe that this time we’ve won the battle over bigotry and xenophobia. We will forgive and we will move on, as we are so often told to do.

The famous yet compromised motto of the French Republic, liberte, egalite, fraternite, will resonate deep in every one of us. We will carry on worshipping the supposedly universal ideal of Frenchness.

For how long do we have to keep proving our greatness and our humanity?

Then, when the euphoria fades away, things will quickly regress to normality. France will always be France: an imperial nation whose greed, racism and cruelty know no bounds. Postcolonial migrants will return to their position as outsiders in the French republic.

The experience of 1998 tells us this will be the outcome. Since that World Cup victory, our dreams of a national reconciliation turned, again and again, to dust. Black and brown bodies remain governed by martial laws, the banlieues have turned into urban colonies, and police violence operates with total impunity.

A symbolic victory

This symbolic victory on the football field is further proof of what we have been telling them since the dawn of Western modernity: “Without us, you are nothing.”  A variation of this is: “Without your oppression, we’d simply be the best.”

But for how long do we have to keep proving our greatness and our humanity? Unfortunately, our constant and desperate call for recognition often undermines our potential and human power.

French supporters in Brussels celebrate after watching the Russia 2018 World Cup semi-final between France and Belgium on 10 July, 2018 (AFP)

I have read here and there that the French team would be completely different without the immigrants’ touch. The obvious, wider truth is that the whole Western world wouldn’t be what it is without us.

After all the African teams had been knocked out of the World Cup, some referred to France as the “last African team” in the tournament. I sympathise with this attempt to re-appropriate our resources and heritage, but the truth is that we keep feeding and uplifting the empire, while it keeps exploiting and degrading us.

I am happy to see each of these talented players receive the honour and recognition they deserve. We can all be grateful for the glimmer of hope they bring to the millions of black and Muslim people across the world whose dignity is often jeopardised by French national and international policies.

But this is nothing compared to the satisfaction I’d have felt to see France losing this final game. Some of us can no longer bear the frustration and anger felt every time the French nation uses and appropriates our talents and achievements and that is what I feel is happening here with the French football team.

At the time of writing, the RATP, the state-owned public transport operator, has just announced the end of service in specific areas of Paris, from 6pm onwards, for security reasons. This limits access to the main public spaces of celebration for the youth of the banlieues, the real owners of this victory. The French republic’s contempt is real and profound.

Decades ago, our great-grandparents and grandparents experienced a similar fate after fighting for France on the frontline of her dirty wars. We know too well how it all ended.

Once used as human shields, the Senegalese Tirailleurs – and many others soldiers from the French colonies – were thrown into the dustbin of French history. Even though the ball has replaced the rifle, the empire is still the one who scores and enjoys the fruits of our skills and sacrifices.

May we one day be united for a real African international team.

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