The Blood of the Impure

The French national anthem is a pretty nasty song. It dreams, in one of its more memorable verses, that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields.”

Lilian Thuram (15) and Zinedine Zidane (10), two players with African immigrant backgrounds, who defined French football in the 2010s, lining up against Italy in the 2006 World Cup Final in Berlin, Germany (Wiki Commons).

La Marseillaise, the French national anthem is a rousing anthem, to be sure, and I myself can frequently be heard humming it to myself in advance of a match being played by Les Bleus, or as I ride my bike or do the dishes. I’ve found that it’s sometimes hard to find a French person (at least if you hang out, as I do, with too many intellectuals), who can actually sing it without irony. And yet, over the past 26 years, the question of whether a particular subset of French men – those who play on the national football team – sing the Marseillaise under certain conditions has been a rather unhealthy obsession in France (remember when Kinshasa-born flanker Yannick Nyanga sobbed uncontrollably during the anthem ahead of a rugby union match against Australia last year).

We are now being treated to what feels to me like Act 467 of this drama. Karim Benzema, as anyone who attentively watches French football matches knows, doesn’t sing the anthem before matches. In a recent interview, asked why, he answered in a pleasingly flippant way: “It’s not because I sing that I’m going to score three goals. If I don’t sing the Marseillaise, but then the game starts and I score three goals, I don’t think at the end of the game anyone is going to say that I didn’t sing the Marseillaise.” Pushed further on the question, he invoked none other than Zinedine Zidane who, like Benzema, was the child of Algerian immigrants to France – and who also happens to be the greatest French footballer of all time, and the one to whom the team owes its one little star on its jersey: “No one is going to force me to sing the Marseillaise. Zidane, for instance, didn’t necessarily sing it. And there are others. I don’t see that it’s a problem.”

Ah, Karim, but it is a problem, don’t you see? In fact, your decision about whether to vocalize or not, as you stand in line under the careful scrutiny of cameras, about to enter into a hyper-stressful and aggressive sporting match during which your every action will be dissected and discussed, is an unmistakable sign about whether or not the true France will survive or alternatively be submerged in a tide of unruly immigrants and their descendants.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as Michel Platini has noted, in his generation no footballers ever sang the Marseillaise, and that “white” footballers – even the Muslim Franck Ribéry, who at best mutters a bit during the anthem but is much more enthusiastic in his pre-game prayers to Allah – are rarely if ever asked this particular question, even so some will continue to insist that your choice not to sing is a window onto your disloyal soul. As the Front National explained: “This football mercenary, paid 1484 Euros per hour, shows an inconceivable and unacceptable disdain for the jersey that he is lucky to be able to wear. Karim Benzema does not “see the problem” with not singing the Marseillaise. Well, French people wouldn’t see any problem with having him no longer play for the French team.”

Some genealogy is in order here. In 1996, Jean-Marie Le Pen first levied this accusation against the French team. France was playing in the European Cup, and playing well. But he was a bit disturbed by something he saw: an awful lot of them seemed, well, not really to be French. “It’s a little bit artificial to bring in foreign players and baptize them ‘Equipe de France,’” he opined. The team, he went on – with blithe disregard for the bald falsity of what he was saying, since no one can play on the French team who is not a French citizen, and nearly all of the players had in any case been born in France – was full of “fake Frenchmen who don’t sing the Marseillaise or visibly don’t know it.” When pressed on these comments a few days later, he lamented that while players from other countries in the tournament sang their anthems, “our players don’t because they don’t want to. Sometimes they even pout in a way that makes it clear that it’s a choice on their part. Or else they don’t know it. It’s understandable since no one teaches it to them.”

The response to Le Pen’s 1996 comments was immediate and resounding: everyone, or almost everyone, called him an idiot. Politicians, pundits, and journalists all piled on, falling over themselves to denounce his comments and declare their love for the French team. In fact he managed to do something rather extraordinary with his comments, pushing a group of athletes – most of whom would likely have never made public political statements about the questions of race, immigration, and identity in France – to become activists of a kind.

Christian Karembeu – from the Pacific territory of New Caledonia – made a decision. “From that on, I didn’t sing the Marseillaise. To raise people’s consciousness, so that everyone will know who we are.” He knew the words perfectly, he explained. “In the colonies, everyone has to learn the Marseillaise by heart at school. That means that I, from zero to twenty-five years old, knew the Marseillaise perfectly.” But when he heard the song, Karembeu explained, he thought “about his ancestors” – indigenous Kanaks who had been drafted in New Caledonia and died on the battlefields of World War I for France. “The history of France is that of its colonies and its wealth. Above all, I am a Kanak. I can’t sing the French national anthem because I know the history of my people.”

One of Karembeu’s teammates, the Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram, also experienced the event as a kind of political awakening. He made a different choice when it came to the song: he always sang it loudly, and famously off tune, often with tears in his eyes. But doing so was part of a political stance that overlapped with Karembeu’s: in the next years, Thuram became a powerful and potent voice criticizing Le Pen, and later Nicholas Sarkozy, and advocating for acknowledgment, study, and confrontation with the past of slavery and colonialism. In his retirement, he has – in a move that, to say the least, is not the usual path taken by post-career athletes – devoted himself to anti-racist education, and recently curated an exhibit at the Quai Branly museum outlining the history of colonial and racial representations of “the Other.”

Le Pen’s comments were also a case of spectacularly bad timing. Though France didn’t win the European Cup, a team made up of most of the same players did the unthinkable in 1998 and won the World Cup in Paris. This victory would, in any situation, have been greeted with an outpouring of joy. But thanks largely to Le Pen’s comments – and to the fact that it was Thuram and Zidane – who scored the pivotal goals in the semi-final and final, the event was greeted by many in France as a powerful celebration of a new multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation. There was an outpouring of comments from all sides that saw, in the team, precisely the opposite of what Le Pen had suggested: a France which, thanks to the contributions of all its different peoples, of all backgrounds, had won a critical victory.

Zinedine Zidane, for instance, reflected on the World Cup victory as a moment of consolidation and reconciliation for him and his family, and more broadly for Algerians and their descendants in France, many of whom waved Algerian flags to celebrate. “There was something very moving about seeing all those Algerian flags mixed in with the French ones in the streets on the night of our victory. This alchemy of victory proved suddenly that my father and mother had not made the journey for nothing: it was the son of a Kabyle that offered up the victory, but it was France that became champion of the world. In one goal by one person, two cultures became one.” The victory was “the most beautiful response to intolerance.” He described the victory as an explicit response to Le Pen: “Frankly, what does it matter if you belt out the Marseillaise or if you live it inside yourself? … Do we have to belt out this warrior’s song to be patriotic?”

It is, perhaps, this Zidane that Benzema was trying to channel in his comments. Of course, they come at a very different time. Zidane could speak from the pinnacle of victory. Benzema speaks in the midst of a long period of relative failure on the part of the French team – the debacle of 2010, the ultimate disappointment of the European Cup last summer, and now an ongoing struggle to qualify for 2014 in Brazil. The current debate about the Marseillaise, too, is haunted by the many controversies surrounding the booing of the anthem during matches pitting France against Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco over the past years. In September 2001, after pro-Algeria fans invaded the pitch during a game against France, Le Pen once again used football as a touchstone for his political campaign, this time with more success. He announced his candidacy for president in front of the Stade de France a few weeks later, explaining he had chosen the site because it was where “our national anthem was booed.” The next year, he made it into the second round of the presidential election, forcing the French to choose between him and Jacques Chirac. The French team mobilized again, with even Zidane urging people to vote against Le Pen.

We might imagine that there is, somewhere in the Front National office, presumably some kind of little file, or perhaps a handbook, on how to take advantage of various incidents on the football pitch for political gain. And one can predict that, like Benzema, future footballers who – because of the accident of their ancestry – are be suspected of disloyalty by French xenophobes will be asked this same question again and again: “Why don’t you sing the Marseillaise?” They’ll be able to look back to find various ways to answer the question, and indeed will have quite the menu: do you politely offer a “Va te faire foutre!” with sauce Karembeu, Thuram, Zidane, or Benzema? Eventually, one might be able to offer an entire seminar on the meaning and performance of nationalism using nothing but examples from the debate about football and the Marseillaise. The field of French Cultural Studies will eventually acknowledge that Jean-Marie Le Pen has been our greatest friend over the years, a generative thinker without whom we might have little to write about.

In the meantime, on the pitch France will need all the help it can get as they are about to take on reigning World and double European champions Spain. Many fans will probably be open to the players using any form of inspiration they might need in order to score some goals and win this critical game, so that they won’t put us all through the usual torture of dragging out qualification until the last minute. (Remember the hand of Henry?)

Do they want to pray to Allah, Jesus, Zarathustra? Be our guest. Invoke their Ancestors the Gauls, channel the spirit of the founder of the World Cup, the Frenchman Jules Rimet, or call down the West African warrior god Ogun? Fine with us. At the end of the game, as Benzema has pointed out, if they’ve scored three goals and pull off a win, no one will remember what they were singing when the game began.

Further Reading