I. Stade de France, 12 July 1998. It was a cathartic moment that struck an emotional chord across a whole nation. World Cup 98 hosts France, two goals to the good against a Ronaldo-inspired Brazil with just injury time left to play in the final, sealed the deal in style thanks to a glorious, sweeping counter-attacking move that sent the Saint-Denis crowd into raptures.
With time ebbing away, French midfielder Emmanuel Petit had embarked upon one last lung-busting run from deep. Starting from the base of midfield, the Dieppe-born player curved his trajectory to meet Patrick Vieira’s perfectly weighted slide-rule pass, before finishing low under the despairing dive of Brazil custodian Taffarel.
In truth, the outcome of the match had probably already been settled as Les Bleus repeatedly repelled a desperate Brazilian onslaught in the second period, but Petit’s 93rd minute goal served as the icing on the cake for a euphoric crowd buoyed by the outstanding achievements of their countrymen.
Throughout the game, chants of ‘Vive la France, Black-Blanc-Beur’ (Long live France, Black-White-Arab) emanated from the stands of the national stadium. This, for those unfamiliar with the socio-political zeitgeist in l’Hexagone, was the perfect symbol of what appeared to be a united France; one that not only delighted in its own sporting excellence, but that also, on the outside, conveyed an image of racial tolerance and multi-ethnic cohesion.
For other more keen observers of Francophone society, however, it was exactly the sort of unifying moment that the country had desperately needed.
Indeed, while Messrs Zidane, Thuram and Desailly – the undoubted pillars of Aimé Jacquet’s all-conquering team – had ancestral roots in France’s départements and former colonies, the overwhelmingly positive manifestations of interracial cooperation and harmony displayed at the World Cup were juxtaposed with an increasingly fractious and divisive political landscape; one that had almost simultaneously seen street riots in the country’s notorious suburban estates and the controversial Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right Front National surge in popularity.
In March that year, Le Pen’s FN had secured 15 percent of the vote in the French regional elections, with over three million people making it the country’s third most popular political party. Riding on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, the group had tapped into fears over inward migration in an evermore diverse society and let the ‘race issue’ cat out of the proverbial bag in a big way.
It had been hoped that events on that balmy July night in Saint-Denis would quell the momentum of the extreme right’s charge, and at least in the short-term they did, as French historian Laurent Dubois chronicled in his acclaimed book, Soccer Empire:
“French fans prayed for a national victory of course, but they hoped just as much they would watch Zidane – according to one poll the most beloved French citizen,” he wrote of star man Zinedine Zidane’s impact as a French international of Algerian heritage.
• • • •
Read | Marcel Desailly: the exclusive interview on Euro 2000, Africa and more
• • • •
“Among the milling blue, white and red-painted fans, I watched the cars roll by flying flags and carrying signs saying, ‘Merci Zizou’, Zidane’s oft-chanted nickname.
“In front of me, along the Seine, a beat-up Citroën came to a stop and I saw a lanky young man sitting in the backseat, holding a homemade flagpole with two small flags fluttering together: the red-white-blue French flag and next to it the Algerian flag, green and white, its crescent and star.
“Zidane’s parents had migrated from Algeria to France when Algeria was still a French colony. In 1962, after a brutal war, Algeria won its independence, but Zidane’s parents remained in France. Zidane spent his life as the haunted crossroads between the two countries. Flying on the same pole, fluttering against one another, the two flags became a single banner- for Zidane, for the French national team, for Algerian France: a dream of reconciliation.”
Despite this positive short-term step, though – for which Zidane was in no small part responsible – the nation remained riven with racial tension and social angst.
Four years later, this all came to a head as Le Pen shocked France in making it through to the second round of the 2002 presidential election. Although comprehensively defeated by Jacques Chirac, the country had reached a political nadir that fully evidenced the complex, fractured nature of French society at the time; one that had its origins in concerns over inequality and restricted freedom of expression.
• • • •
Secularism: A system of social organisation and education where religion is not allowed to play a part in civil affairs.
II. At the heart of its constitution as a republic is the fundamental principle that France should remain a secular state; that is to maintain a separation between church and government institutions.
La laïcité, as it is known in France, features as Article 1 of the French constitution and plays a crucial role in determining the very essence of what it means to be a modern day citizen of the country.
The idea is that in not imposing one particular creed upon its citizens, France allows for freedom of choice when it comes to religion and does not risk alienating those of other faiths. For its advocates, secularism is a key tenet of the republic, and one that must be adhered to at all costs.
• • • •
Read | Zidane, Deschamps and France’s functional Euro 2000 winners
• • • •
Yet for all its virtues – and there are many, it must be said – secularism has not always been a force for good in France. In September 2010, the French senate controversially banned the use of face-covering headgear, including masks, helmets, balaclava, hijabs and other veils covering the face in public places on the basis that objects/items of religious significance have no place in public spaces. Christian crucifixes also received the same treatment.
Critics argued that not only was this religious suppression but that as France’s default position is fundamentally Christian in its perspective, the country’s secularism ostracises part of its large mixed race community.
On the face of it, they may have a point.
In 2015, the CIA World Factbook estimated that between 7-9 percent of France’s circa 67 million strong population was now Muslim, with a ballpark total of around 15 percent of the public non-white. It is clear that certain sections of French society see laïcité as an imposition, not a virtue, and this proves a fitting symbol of the disconnect between successive French governments and the wider population.
Issues of identity, and exactly what it means to be French, have long been discussed as the cause of such tensions in the country. The race riots depicted in visionary zeitgeist films like Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) stemmed in part from a feeling of disillusionment amongst people deriving from parts of France’s former colonial Empire.
Dubois provides another telling insight into the immensely divided country with specific emphasis to the way in which the French people reacted to Zidane’s now infamous head-butt on Italian Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final.
“In France, the discussion of the head-butt- impassioned, diverse, at turns comical and dead serious- powerfully illustrated how football can both condense and propel larger political debates.
“Less than a year earlier a massive, month-long insurrection had broken out in poor banlieue neighbourhoods throughout the country. Young protestors, many of them the children and grandchildren of immigrants, were enraged by the police brutality and demanded that French society respect their rights as citizens.
• • • •
Read | Zinedine Zidane and the defining moments of greatness at Euro 2000
• • • •
“Zidane had grown up the child of Algerian immigrants in such a neighbourhood. In a France still reeling from the riots, many interpreted his coup de boule in relation to the ongoing struggle over the legacies of empire and the place of immigrants born of that empire in French society.”
With immigration rising and social disenfranchisement as its zenith, the short-term boost to the nation’s morale provided by France’s multicultural World Cup win quickly evaporated as the Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National continued to grow in popularity.
What we’ve seen in recent years has been an escalation of those tensions, with the added 21st century threat of terrorism helping the FN to appeal to an even broader base. For some, France was now at breaking point.
• • • •
III. It’s not hard to find parallels between World Cup 1998 and the current European Championship in France. Then, as now, the country hosted a major tournament in the midst of an internal crisis – perhaps at the worst possible time given the problems found in wider society.
Coming into this year’s competition, anger at President Francois Hollande’s attempts to reform the much-cherished French working week has been met by fears over terrorism in a country that has recently found itself under siege from extremists.
With the January and November atrocities of 2015 firmly in mind and a wave of unprecedented immigration sweeping over Europe, the FN – this time led by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine – have again started to make significant inroads in predominantly working class communities up and down the country. After highlighting the need for tougher immigration policies, and with France still to fully recover from the financial crash of 2008, the extreme-right managed to finish first in the opening round of last year’s regional elections. By all accounts, we’ve come full cycle in the space of just 17 years.
Remarkably, as Didier Deschamps men have progressed through the tournament, the ‘Black-Blanc-Beur’ chant of yesteryear has been revived. Once again the masses have taken to the streets and current wounds, albeit temporarily, appear to have healed. Perhaps those suffering from hard-hitting austerity cuts or concerns over racist outbreaks will take refuge in the fortunes of a team containing players of a variety of different creeds, colours and backgrounds.
Now more than ever, France needs its football team to channel the spirit of ‘98.
By Patrick Boyland. Follow @Paddy_Boyland