Today we would have our Euro 2020 champion on the streets. With a reasonable chance of France having advanced to this stage, we want to take a close look at the role of this national team and how citizens have come to view it over time as a representation of an inclusive society. That is why we spoke to French Football journalist Philippe Auclair to discuss the French national team, its history and roots in migration.
In conversation with: Philippe Auclair ( in ).
A new kind of national team in 1998?
When the French national team won the World Cup in 2018 memories of their famous victory twenty years before began to resurface. In France, many would have remembered the evening of July 12th in 1998, when millions of people gathered on the Parisian Champs-Elysées and across the country, celebrating the French team’s victory. Philippe Auclair went back to this moment, stating that “Everybody insisted upon the fact that you had people who were from all over the world, the French team was a melting pot. This made me proud. That is one of the many things I love about it.”Joy and celebration of victory of the highest achievable trophy in football can understandably lead to euphoria. But we may go a bit further back to appreciate this moment better.
Back to the early 20th century
In contrast with many other national teams, Philippe Auclair notes that: ”If you want to talk about French Football, the one specificity, the one unique thing it has at the national team level that it has always been of immigrants, always. It has been there since the beginning.” He went on to illustrate that: “We can look for example to the team that in 1938 lost in the World Cup quarter final 3-1 against Italy. This French national team which was made up of refugees, you can name players like Ben Bouali, an Algerian, he was the first player of North African descent to play for France, against Ireland, in 1937, Héctor Cazenave, the naturalised Uruguayan defender, Laurent Di Lorto, the son of Italian immigrants; César Povolny, born in German and Auguste Jordan, the Austrian refugee among others. But also Raoul Diagne, the first black player of African origin to represent a colonial power.” Speaking about Raoul Diagne, Mr Auclair holds that – in contrast with the racism faced by black players like Jack Leslie in England – racism in France did not prevent Raoul Diagne to succeed in education and politics. Auclair notes that “It also helped that Diagne was the son of Blaise Diagne, the first African to be elected an Member of the French Parliament (for Senegal) in French history – in 1914.”
Football is a magnifying glass
Stressing the continuity of the presence of migrant players in French national team through the years (1958, 1978), Philippe Auclair does point toward differences in acceptance in society of players of different backgrounds. He notes how people have different attitudes toward “players of North African origin then there are towards players of sub-Saharan origin or players that have come from the West Indies. For the national team that means that people have a different attitude towards players like Hatem Ben Afra, Karim Benzema or Nabil Fekir, for example.”
“It is a fascinating subject and it has to do with national history, in particular with the trauma of the Algerian War. The fact that 1 million people in total had to leave Algeria between 1962 and 1965 to come to France as refugees. There is this big unresolved issue at the heart of our society.” He illustrated this with the example of French national player Karim Benzema being told by a prominent far-right politician to ‘go and play for Algeria’. “Football is a magnifying glass. It’s a great way to look at a society, because every single defect of society is multiplied by ten and it’s in the open.”
From the Past to Future
Educators could, according to Phillipe, look at the history of the French national Football team. Because it can serve well to illustrate the long and steady presence of migration in society, as well as forming and shaping acceptance of this element into a national identity. Stressing this element, he posed: “talk about French Football, its one specificity, the one unique thing it has at the national team level that it has always been of immigrants, always.” At the same time, he would invite educators to study the place of the French national team much more than football culture, as he stressed this is central in French football.
Find out more
Find out more in Philippe Auclair’s article “What makes a Nation?” on The Blizzard. You can also go further into the discussion over the national team on The Conversation. Also you can have a look at Zinedine Zidane’s conversation with Vice about winning the World Cup 1998. Lilian Thurman also spoke about racism in France in The Guardian. If you want to read more about the French national team you can read Sacré Bleu: From Zidane to Mbappé – A football journey by Matthew Spiro.
The identity of the French team is the starting story of the inaugural lecture “Who Are We Actually Cheering On?” of our academic supervisor prof. Gijsbert Oonk.
On this day, Euro2020 would have almost reached the finals. The French team gives us the opportunity to look at national identity and migration.