When France met West Germany in Seville in the World Cup semi-final in 1982, many French fans regarded the Germans as more than just opponents: they were the descendants of wartime enemies. The flying kick by German keeper Toni Schumacher that hospitalised Frenchman Patrick Battiston and France’s agonising defeat on penalties evoked traumatic memories.
But when France meet Germany in Munich on Tuesday for their first match of Euro 2020, some French fans have chosen a different enemy: their own centre-forward, Karim Benzema.
France’s far-right has cast him as the personification of the banlieues, the mostly poor, immigrant suburbs where France stores its lowest castes. The banlieues have replaced Germany as the locus of mainstream French fears of violent attack. Once again, the French world champions have become the object of a Trump-style culture war centred on race.
In 2015, Benzema was expelled from the team after allegations that he helped a friend blackmail a fellow French international over what became known as “la sextape” — the case goes to trial in October. At the time, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen led the charge: “Karim Benzema ought never to have entered the French team. I think he is someone who has repeatedly expressed contempt for France.” Now, after nearly six years in the doghouse, he has been recalled to les Bleus.
Benzema is a tailor-made target for the far right. Of Algerian origin, he grew up in a banlieue outside Lyon, then became a multimillionaire expat at Real Madrid. He once called Algeria “my country”.
Just after the “sextape” story broke, the terrorist attacks of November 2015 when jihadi terrorists killed 130 people in the Bataclan concert hall, the Stade de France stadium, and Parisian cafés and restaurants, raised French anxieties about young immigrant-origin men. Eight days after the attacks, Benzema was filmed spitting — without intent, he insists — after a playing of the Marseillaise.
In many countries, the national football team is felt to be the nation made flesh. Some French people have never accepted that this national symbol should be predominantly non-white.
In 1999, France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights inserted a new question into its annual survey of racist attitudes: were there “too many players of foreign origin in the French football team?” The previous year, “players of foreign origin” had made France world champions. Yet 31 per cent of respondents either totally or mostly agreed with the statement. Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, had known exactly what he was doing when he complained “that they let players come from abroad and baptise them the French team”.
Disaffection with the Bleus would peak during the World Cup of 2010, when the players, quarrelling with their coach, went on strike mid-tournament. Months afterwards, officials in the French football federation, including the then coach Laurent Blanc, discussed reducing the number of black players in national youth training centres. In 2013, a poll by consultants BVA found that 82 per cent of French people had “a bad opinion” of les Bleus.
In 2018 a squeaky clean, mostly non-white team, playing without Benzema, restored the Bleus’ popularity by winning the World Cup. Today, France’s favourite footballer, according to a poll by Odoxa, is Kylian Mbappé, a Parisian banlieusard of Cameroonian and Algerian descent. He told me, “I’ve always felt French. I don’t renounce my origins, because they are part of who I am, but never at any moment was I made to feel I wasn’t at home here.”
Such sentiments of belonging are regularly expressed by the players of 2018, who objected to the joke by US-based South African comedian Trevor Noah that “Africa won the World Cup”. No doubt the players are being sincere, but they also know they cannot risk taking stances for blackness or against French racism.
The attacks on Benzema have reminded them of that. Stéphane Ravier, senator for Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) party, called the forward “a paper Frenchman”. Most far-right supporters oppose Benzema’s recall, say pollsters Ifop. And the RN has opened another front in the culture war, with the party’s vice-president Jordan Bardella complaining that a rapper was chosen to compose the team’s official song for Euro 2020. Bardella called this a surrender to the “racaille” (“scum”) — a longstanding code word for non-white young banlieusards.
France are bookmakers’ favourites to lift the Euro. Yet, even if they win, it will not heal national divides. That’s exactly what many had hoped for after victory in 1998. The demographer Michèle Tribalat said then that the multicultural team had done “more for integration than years of political will”. Events since suggest otherwise. The French team isn’t a hammer, an instrument that can remake France. Rather, it’s a mirror in which the country views itself.