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French insults of World Cup team seen through racial prism

Members of the largely black team have been called 'gang bosses' and 'hoodlums,' disrespectful of France — terms often used to slur residents of the country's minority- and immigrant-filled ghettoes.

June 25, 2010|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Paris — Impostors. Arrogant. Money-hungry idiots.

The insults aimed at France's World Cup team have been venomous following its drama-plagued early elimination from the international tournament.

Passionate hand-wringing at the humiliating fall of the team that won the 1998 World Cup can be expected from dismayed French fans. But some worry that the tirades against the ethnically mixed team are being too often seen through a racial prism, even if that's not the intent.

Few dispute that "Les Bleus," as the team is known, gave a subpar performance at the World Cup, the lowlights including a celebrity striker getting sent home for swearing at his coach, and the team's response by refusing to practice.

But since then, the members of the largely black team have been compared to "gang bosses" and "hoodlums" and said to be disrespectful of France — terms often used to slur residents of the country's minority- and immigrant-filled suburban ghettoes. As a result, many say that such commentary sparks racial hatred.

Criticizing the situation in France's ghettoes is a delicate tap dance, because focusing on the criminal and other negative aspects plaguing those areas inevitably circles back to the people living in the largely immigrant and heavily Muslim areas.

So, intentions aside, the current attacks against the team can "encourage prejudice," and "liberate racist speech," said the general director of the advocacy group SOS Racism, Guillaume Ayne.

Politicians have fervently joined in the harangues, in particular questioning team members' disobedience, and the decision by some on the squad not to sing France's national anthem, "La Marseillaise."

On French radio, philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said the players represent the "spirit of the cité," a term used for ghettoized housing projects, which he said are "devouring" French society.

Problems afflicting the projects include high crime, poor education and a failure to integrate immigrant youths into French culture.

Les Bleus are "a terrible mirror" of French society, said Finkielkraut on Europe 1 radio.

"Nobody has said anything openly racist, yet," said sociologist Jacques Tarnero, who studies racism. However, the risk of tipping into xenophobia comes up when the French team is associated with the problems of the French ghettoes. It could confuse the public, he said.

France's far-right National Front party has shown signs of renewed popularity this year, and in the past its leader has openly complained of a lack of white players on the French national soccer team. The party has campaigned against the spread of immigrants and Muslims, and taps into widely held fears that violence from the suburbs is spreading.

"The debate is a trap," said Tarnero. "You should be able to say that there are cultural problems" in the suburb "without being accused of racism."

Yet that is not currently the case, according to Fadela Amara, France's junior minister for urban affairs. She recently warned that with current far-reaching attacks against Les Bleus, "we are building a highway for the National Front."

Since winning the World Cup 12 years ago with a team starring Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, the French team has been regularly associated — rightly or wrongly — with people from France's poor suburbs. And it is not new for French intellectuals to sermonize on the larger, societal significance of the national soccer team.

There is even an exhibit in Paris of soccer as an anthropological "learning tool" highlighting the "plurality of French society." The show at the National Center of the History of Immigration, scheduled to run until Oct. 17, focuses on the immigrant backgrounds of past French players as a reflection on ongoing changes in French identity.

That topic was reason for many to cheer when the French won the World Cup, and its ethnically mixed players were celebrated as a rainbow of Frenchmen who united for victory, said Yvan Gastaut, a historian and a curator of the exhibit.

That team was "a symbol of living together, which we hadn't seen since France was freed from the Nazis," said Gastaut.

At the time, the media hammered home a positive association of the soccer players with the country's poor suburbs. But as soon as the team began to play badly and the public grumbled about the star-studded lifestyle of team members, that message started to backfire.

"Before, we said the suburbs won the World Cup. Now it's all the opposite, and we say these children of the ghettoes lost it, and as a result we stigmatize the suburbs," Gastaut said.

On the way out of the soccer exhibit, visitors hear loudspeakers play the sound of cheering soccer fans. On a recent day, there were practically no visitors to listen.

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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