With the exception of four players, France’s national team for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar consists entirely of the children of immigrants. 21 of Les Bleus were born to parents from African countries, former French colonies or overseas territories, the Philippines, Spain, and Germany. Two other players —goalkeeper Steve Mandanda and Real Madrid midfielder Eduardo Camavinga— were born outside French territory.
The problem for France’s xenophobic far Right is that the country’s team won the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and, before the first whistle was even blown in Qatar, was favored to win it all again. But to root for the national team, the xenophobes must cheer for a group that features the athletic and robust sons of immigrants and boys from the banlieues —the multiethnic suburbs— who, from time to time, rebel in the streets against the elites who scorn the neighborhoods as hotbeds of crime and terrorism.
In 2018, Les Bleus entered the World Cup as favorites to win it all, and France’s extreme right-wing groups similarly rejected the team. Now, in the final weeks of 2022, the country’s far-right movement has grown even stronger after achieving its best electoral results ever at the April 2022 polls.
Thus, France’s powerful, majority-Black soccer team faces opposition from a far Right that has been rejecting the plurality that these players embody since before many of them were born. Indeed, in 1996, extreme right-wing political leader Jean-Marie Le Pen said that France did not feel represented by its team. His France, of course.
Rather than a random, one-off jab, Le Pen’s comment encapsulates the right-wing stance that a soccer team made up of immigrants could not possibly reflect French identity. In 2013, Marine Le Pen—Jean-Marie's daughter and the heir to his National Front party—spelled out the Right’s contempt for the national team even more explicitly than her father. 'It's some kind of gang of petulant kids who inspire no national pride and make a mockery out of representing France,' she said. Nine years later, Marine Le Pen came extremely close to winning the French presidential election.
Without admitting it, France’s National Front—now rebranded as the National Gathering—promotes ultra-conservative, nationalist and racist policies. The movement’s slogans clash with the diversity and inclusiveness that the French soccer team symbolizes. When the team won the 2018 World Cup, President Emanuel Macron celebrated the French team’s victory by telling the players, 'Never forget where you come from or your parents, who gave their time to support you along the way (...). That's France.'
Yet in April’s second-round presidential election, over 13 million French citizens, or 42% of the total electorate, voted for the far-right Le Pen. Macron, a centrist, managed to win his second term, but the far Right’s strong showing reflects the rise of like-minded movements across Europe and beyond in the last decade.
French progressives blame Macron and his government’s continued alignment with the elites’ positions for enabling the rise of the radical Right. In October 2018, hundreds of thousands of protesters from the 'yellow vests' movement reproached him for just that. The movement’s socio-economic demands included calls to redress exclusion and that France adapt to its new ethnic, social, and cultural reality.
That reality is well reflected in the World Cup team that head coach Didier Deschamps has assembled. 'The team has players from Africa and the overseas territories. That has always been an asset for soccer and for all French sports. They are all French, and they are all proud to be French,” the coach said four years ago. But Deschamps —a World Cup champion both as coach in 2018 and as a player in 1998— has had to answer for his own alleged racist bias in the past.
France enters Qatar as a favorite to win the tournament despite injuries to stars Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kanté, and Karim Benzema. The three headline a team composed of players of African descent as well as residents of the banlieues outside of Paris populated by a working class dissatisfied with the elites on either side of the political aisle. But after being the first team to qualify for the round of 16 with strong performances against Australia and Denmark, their absence does not seem insurmountable. The team can still count on Kylian Mbappé, the new international soccer star, who developed his power and speed at his Cameroonian father's soccer school in Bondy, in Paris’s northeastern suburbs.
Mbappé won the last World Cup in Moscow, but he’s competing at an even higher level now. He is the world’s highest paid soccer player, raking in almost 95 million dollars per year from endorsement deals and his salary from the PSG club managed by Nasser Al-Khelaïfi (a member of the Qatari emir’s circle). Mbappé has turned out to be the best player from his neighborhood, but he’s not the only one. Deschamps’ squad also includes 6’4”-defender William Saliba, born to Cameroonian and Lebanese parents. Saliba trained with Mbappé at Bondy when they were both teenagers.
Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, the son of Algerian immigrants, made this year’s World Cup roster, but two days before the tournament began, he reported a muscle injury. Benzema had been excluded from France’s national soccer team for nearly five years because of clashes with previous national squads. In 2016, Benzema blamed his long absence from Les Bleus on his background as an immigrant and accused coach Deschamps of bowing to pressure from racist groups. At the time, former soccer player Eric Cantona expressed his support for Benzema, asserting that the striker had been the victim of the coach’s racial discrimination: “Deschamps has a very French name. Perhaps he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Like the Mormons in the United States, nobody in his family has mixed with anyone.”
Benzema has also spoken about external pressure on the French national team, noting “the extremist party has reached the second round in France’s last two elections.” At the time, he did not know that the country’s radical Right would continue to grow and gain unprecedented electoral support in 2022.
Emmanuel Macron, like his predecessors, has made sure to don the blue jersey. “Fingers crossed; I'm with them, and on December 18 the team bus will slowly drive down the Champs-Elysees,” he said in a documentary broadcast on French television on the Sunday that the World Cup began in Qatar.
Macron also understands the French soccer team’s political value because of its composition and origins, as well as because of the players’ political intentions. The latter includes the players’ desire to kneel in support of the Black Lives Matter movement at the 2021 Euro Championship. Right-wing politicians immediately upbraided the team for the gesture.
The French men’s squad also spoke out about the many questions surrounding Qatar’s human rights violations. “In the tumultuous context of this World Cup, we want to remember our commitment to respect for human rights (...). Our passion should not be the cause of others’ misfortune,” a group of players said in a jointly written letter. The missive acknowledged that the players had recently listened to activist organizations; they also announced that they will donate funds to the same organizations. They signed the letter: 'The players of the 2022 French National Team and Generation 2018.' In other words, the world champions.
*Translated by Jessica Kirstein