Football exerts a tortured fascination on the French public. It is fashionable to scoff at the benighted masses turning to football as an opium and to deplore the bad behavior and flashy spending of footballers. But everyone goes back to being a fan if Les Bleus are winning.
The only country to qualify for three World Cup finals in twenty years, France also flamed out in the group stage at two of the tournaments in between 1998 and now. As Les Bleus’ athletic performance has seesawed, so has the team’s perception by an increasingly racist, classist society.
Countless retrospectives have looked back at the French 1998 squad and the illusory dream of “black-blanc-beur” unity. But while the memory of that victory 20 years ago is beloved, what really shapes the current iteration of Les Bleus was the tumultuous 2010 World Cup. That tournament was not just an athletic failure, it was the site of a social conflict that the French Football Federation seems determined to never repeat.
In South Africa, France’s stacked roster (Thierry Henry, Franck Ribéry, Patrice Evra, Yoann Gourcuff, among them) underperformed. Everyone seemed certain why. Commentators played up the supposed fracture between players from “rough neighborhoods” (Ribéry; the “jemenfoutiste” Nicolas Anelka) versus those from the provinces (Hugo Lloris, the banker and lawyer’s son; “polite, well-mannered, calm” Gourcuff). The coach, Raymond Domenech, was frustrated by the players’ strong personalities—not only their interpersonal tensions but also their desire to have a say in tactics.
At halftime during their match against Mexico, Domenech clashed with Anelka, and according to the sports magazine L’Equipe, Anelka said to Domenech, “go get fucked, you son of a whore.” Domenech sent him off and would send him home him a few days later following a media outcry.
Years later, the coach would admit Anelka hadn’t uttered the words L’Equipe printed, saying what had offended him gravely was the player’s use of the informal pronoun tu instead of vous. Domenech had expected deference, like that of an employee to a boss.
Fittingly, Domenech’s attachment to hierarchy sparked a labor dispute. All 22 remaining players went on strike in solidarity with Anelka–but also maybe to remind the coach and the country that without them there was no team, that they were not disposable. Soon eliminated, they flew home to face national opprobrium.
The strike was the subject of national outrage targeted directly at the banlieusard players who’d led it. Sports minister Roselyne Bachelot called the players “immature gangsters”; for Académie française philosopher Alain Finkielkraut they were “arrogant and unintelligent thugs,” evidence that “we must reckon with the ethnic and religious divisions undermining this team.”
Since 2010, the French Football Federation has sought to define itself against the strike and cultivate a “respectable,” controlled team. The strike was led by players who had the stature to stand up to the management, because you don’t just replace Ribéry or Henry; perhaps this is why by 2014 a new crop of mild-mannered fresh faces was phased in.
This year, Didier Deschamps has assembled a side of players who can compartmentalize their strong personalities or just don’t have one. They are captained by Lloris, the milquetoast lone holdover from 2010. All toe the line in press briefings, fluent in la langue de bois, the French art of saying nothing. On the field, Deschamps plays politics, suppressing the attacking talents of Paul Pogba—France’s creative force, who had the misfortune to be a flamboyant black player with fun hairstyles—while spotlighting great white hopes Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. The watchword seems to be: don’t produce a star that can’t be controlled. Any charismatic, talented player who is independent-minded and doesn’t fit the white, bourgeois profile—any potential leader who might side against or simply look bad for the team management—must become a cog.
Yes, the obvious exception to this rule is Kylian Mbappé, whose greatness is so irrepressible that the FFF machine just has to deal with it. The team’s wunderkind impressed all observers with his almost surreal humility and calm—but it’s not like he had a choice, as an incredibly young black player commanding record sums of money, other than to be cartoonishly exemplary. The second he slips up, the tide is sure to turn.
But for now, the team is an impeccable PR success. It’s also a boon for the increasingly unpopular president Emmanuel Macron, who could use a wave of positivity. Macron’s government even used the World Cup as a pretext to delay the announcement of the anti-poverty plan. Don’t worry, all is well in the startup nation.