“Dear Sirs, the comedy / We are now judging / Depicts the life–lest we’re mistaken / Of the good people in this audience. / When oppressed, they curse and cry; / Writhe and seethe against their wrongs / Still everything ends with a song.”
–Beaumarchais, Le Mariage de Figaro (1778)
It also begins with one.
When France faces Croatia in the final of World Cup 2018 on Sunday, 15 July, both teams will line up on the field to listen to renditions of their respective national anthems. By FIFA rules they can be no longer than 90 seconds. A band from the hosting country will play shortened instrumental versions of the songs to which players, staff and fans are welcome to sing if the spirit moves them, and if their anthem has lyrics.
And sung they have in this World Cup: we’ve seen fans sing well past the mark, players belt out with their eyes closed, tightly packaged moments of fervor that illustrate growing nationalistic feelings across the globe.
We’ve all laughed at the fans’ costumes, yet they also say much about self-definition. Croatian fans wear water polo caps in honor of player Vedran Corluka’s vaunted doggedness; the French go for folk costumes and local color trinkets (berets and baguettes, of course) and historical nods, some flaunting Revolutionary-era bicorn hats and jackets, and others helmets with hanging braids evoking the cartoonish vision of ancient Gaul made popular by the comic book Astérix et Obélix.
It’s all in good fun, but even good fun has ramifications: however humorous, like the anthems these costumes are supposed to hit a nerve, referring to easily recognizable, defining eras or events. The infamous phrase “our ancestors the Gauls” once was the opening sentence of French history books bandying a “national novel” simultaneously promoting the democratic values of the French Revolution and connecting it to a singular, separate and, it’s implied, white French ethnic group. The silly costumes give us a sense of each country’s self-image and lately perhaps more than ever since the 1930s, even as football-related migration is more brisk than ever, even as the world sees the most profound refugee crisis, nations have been projecting visions of increasing insularity that more often than not breathe what Frantz Fanon once called an “all-white truth” from which black people are taught to stay out.
Ethno-nationalism is never too far from football. Just this week, it was revealed that former Croatia coach Igor Stimac, echoing the spate of posts evoking French players’ African roots, hinted that they were maybe not quite French. Though many pointed out the hypocrisy of a man who once lined up Brazilian-born players on his national team. The move, here as always, is aimed at questioning the legitimacy of a team as a representation of its country’s racial makeup. Stimac’s gross comment is in line with the narrative of abnegation, strife and underdog status echoed in every other national anthem out there, an exceptionalist narrative that demands separation and hierarchy. Everyone wants to be David to Goliath. But it also points to the particular skeletons of French history, and the way they rise up to the surface of the football field in bodies, in movements and in song.
Of the seven stanzas of La Marseillaise, only the first is routinely sung, and at best one usually skips the following five stanzas for the last two. Yet the second stanza is not uninteresting:
This conspiratorial horde of slaves, traitors and kings, what does it mean to do?
For whom these loathsome tethers, these long-prepared irons?
For us, Frenchmen, ah! What an outrage
What transports it must foster
It is us they contemplate
Returning to ancient slavery!
Here ring the strains of the Enlightenment and they get right at the period’s essential paradox: Great Britain and France, the two nations that profited most from the Atlantic slave trade loved nothing more than writing about not being slaves. Think of the quintessential anthem of British imperialism, “Rule Britannia,” and its boastful refrain “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves, and Britons never never shall be slaves,” evoking a naval supremacy ironically built on the backs of slave and impressed sailors. When Rouget de Lisle wrote this, France was not just facing all of Europe: it was attempting to put down a revolution in the West Indian colony of Saint-Domingue, where the enslaved population had risen to overthrow French colonial power. It would take them a decade, fighting off France, Spain and England at inestimable human cost. But they did it, creating in the process the nation of Haiti. That history, routinely silenced in French education and culture, is nevertheless embodied on the field in Presnel Kimpembe, whose mother hails from the West Indian island. Taste that irony; its blend should feel somewhat familiar to American readers.
George Orwell once stated, “big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes that have produced nationalism”: and so nationalistic manifestations around the game follow the ebb and flow of local and international politics. We have seen players on all teams belt out these songs as if their lives depended on it, and maybe, sometimes, they do. The evolution of anthem expectations in France are well documented. In 1998, fascist goon Jean-Marie Le Pen’s pearl-clutching about the national anthem was fairly isolated; most mainstream French politicians and commentators found the demand risible. Yet they discussed it, and then more. By 2010 French politicians across the board demanded that players sing the song, and the silent types like Benzema, Ribéry or Nasri were skewered for not doing so. We have reached a time in 2018 when players singing is taken for granted.
But singing was not always such a big deal in France and elsewhere. French athletes in general and football players in particular used to wait out the anthem with their mouths closed, stern look on their faces. Watch France’s golden generation, Michel Platini’s 1980s, who were twice World Cup semifinalists and winners of Euro 84, here or there. Not one of them even pretends to mouth the words. Not that they did not know them: as Platini testified, he never used to sing what he saw as a war song: “I might have sung it had I been going to war, but I was going to play football.” As he further states: “When white players did not sing, it was not an issue. When players of color did not sing, it was. That’s shameful.” That is also a practice without borders.
As Colin Kaepernick has been painfully reminding the United States over the past few years, sports is political and has routinely been used for state-sponsored propaganda throughout the modern era. Here black athletes are expected to shut up during the anthem for a reason: they might actually say something. For kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner and demonstrating that things could be said without words, Kaepernick has lost his job, and the rich white men in control of the sport done their damnedest to placate the rich white man in the White House and make sure no such uppityness is ever witnessed on the gridiron again. Further yet: Trump demanded change, and his minions at the head of NFL franchises have devised new rules requiring players on the field to “stand and show respect” on threat of a fine. Players may protest in their locker rooms, if they so desire, far from American eyes. A visible black body must be a docile black body. Nothing new under the sun. In the end, the idea that French players are French is hardly provocative. The national team is a siren song of ideals of individual merit and exceptionalism that in themselves, are far from incompatible with fascism, no matter the players’ background. As much as I like to think guitars and football can kill fascists, I also know that like cockroaches, fascists survive anything, and as Haythem Guesmi just pointed out on this site, it is certainly true that many of them can deal with model black citizens just fine. So long as they’re standing for the right songs.
Nothing that happens in the final will make any profound immediate difference in the way black and brown people are treated in and by France. For all the meaning we can impose upon these teams and these players, they are aristocrats of sorts, heroes in wonderful tales of exceptionalism routinely used to silence the many quotidian tales of oppression and exploitation that make up the foundation of the Western world. But then, rooted as popular culture artifacts are in the very structures they may or may not criticize, what political effects they have are more likely to be progressive rather than revolutionary; symbolic rather than concrete. The impact of culture is difficult to assess: we can discuss the messages black music carries, but it doesn’t mean that racists will listen, and even worse, if they listen, they don’t actually have to care. Everything ends with a song, and when those echoes die down we can always go back to whatever it is we were doing before. More often than not we are forced to.
And yet: I’m one to think that those echoes matter. On Sunday I’ll root for France, not out of national pride, but because I like their sound. Not the warlike strains of that two-hundred year old song, mind you: but the diasporic soundtrack DJ Kimpembe has been beaming throughout the world in video after video. Haitian kompa of Platinum D, the coupé décalé of Congolese DJ Marechal, the African pop-infused sounds of French musicians DJ Leska and especially Naza: his injunction to “mouiller le maillot et mailler” (wet the jersey and get loot) in MMM is not unproblematic. On the face of it, it is very much a celebration of capitalist logic, yet even as such, it necessarily throws in relief angelic definitions of national belonging. Professional football is juicy business and so are citizenship and national belonging. Recently Antoine Griezmann was telling journalists with a thin smile how proud he is to be French and live in France (he doesn’t), where the food is good and the journalists are pretty. I’m not one to judge whether or not he and the other players truly care, but I hope they don’t. They have no reason to. They play the jingoistic game like they have all of the other games they’ve been asked to play. Kudos to them, I suppose.
More crucially maybe, what I’ll root for in the final is pickup football: the painstaking, exhilarating and profoundly frustrating experience of struggling to find harmony with a bunch of strangers, and what reflections of it I see on the field, whether in red and white checkers or in that deep sea blue. And when the game is over in Russia, I’ll go play another at the field down the street. I’ll find a song to sing on the way.
- Note: All thanks to Tabitha McIntosh (@TabitaSurge) for her keen eyes and editorial assistance.