Citizen Mbappé taking on far right lends pride to France’s Euros exit

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He skied the chance to equalise against Spain but Kylian Mbappé’s eloquence has elevated his team

It is not because Kylian Mbappé spoke out, twice, about the necessity to take a stand against “the extremes” and, more to the point, the National Rally, that he skied a shot that would have brought France level with Spain in their semi-final. But it is because he and others, such as Marcus Thuram and Jules Koundé, did speak out that it will be possible to look back on France’s frustrating Euro 2024 with something like pride. “Never at such a moment, never such a player, never in such a trenchant, brilliant, mastered fashion, never in the history of the French national team, had we witnessed the conjunction of a major moment in French political life, the words of a captain and a great sporting event,” L’Équipe enthused.

The French sports daily had a point, even if other French footballers had taken political stances in the past. The Saint-Étienne forward Dominique Rocheteau had not hidden his unease about taking part in the World Cup held in General Videla’s Argentina in 1978, though he didn’t go as far as the Swedish players who lent their support to the mothers demonstrating on the Plaza de Mayo during the same tournament. More recently, Zinedine Zidane had called on the French electorate to vote against Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean‑Marie, in the 2002 presidential election, calling what was still the Front and not yet the Rassemblement National “a party that does not correspond at all to the values of France”. Kylian, Marcus, Jules et les autres are the heirs of Zizou in more ways than one.

What was unique, however, was the clarity of the message – and the urgency of the situation, when the far right appeared to be “on the doorstep of power”, according to national and international media whose apocalyptic predictions were shown to be wide of the mark in the end. And what was surprising was how few voices outside the Rassemblement National itself were raised to pour scorn on what the French players had said, or how they had expressed it. Didier Deschamps might not have publicly joined their call to reject the far right; but what he had to say was, in its own way, just as powerful. “[These players] are immense footballers but [also] first and foremost French citizens,” he said. “They do not live outside the situation which France finds itself in at the moment. There is no advice to be given. They speak with their own words and their own sensitivity.”

“Citizens” is the all-important word here. Though they’re now careful to dispense with openly racist rhetoric in public, French rightwing extremists are quick to suggest that many – far too many, mon bon Monsieur – of the footballers who have given their country so much joy over the past three decades somehow do not really represent the “real France”. The words and action of Mbappé and his teammates in Germany demonstrated that the exact opposite is true: they spoke as true sons of the République. The “real” France is theirs, too.

The spirit that animated them was not one of hatred, but an echo of the values on which the first republic had been founded, this institution that gave the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and made France the first European country to abolish slavery, in 1794. The tricolore flag of the Revolution belongs to them in a way that the RN activists and politicians who drape themselves in its folds are unable to comprehend. The people who turned out in record numbers to reject Le Pen and Jordan Bardella last Sunday know this. They know who the true patriots are.

That footballers whose parents or grandparents were born outside France or in the départements et territoires d’outre-mer – the relics of the former French empire – should have played their role in this rejection gave more proof that it is impossible to separate the history of the French national team from the history of immigration, and of colonisation, of the République. First- and second-generation immigrants and players from the French colonies already composed a large part of the squad that took part in the 1938 World Cup, whose roots lay in Algeria (Abdelkader Ben Bouali) and Senegal (Raoul Diagné), but also Italy (Laurent Di Lorto, Mario Zatelli), Poland (Ignace Kowalczyk and Martin Povolny) and even Uruguay (Hector Cazenave).

Football, then as now, in France as almost everywhere else, was a means of integration and social advancement. What set France apart was that it called upon those “foreigners” from the outset, when other European countries would have to wait decades to see men and women of exogenous backgrounds being accepted in their national teams. France’s international successes, in 1958 as in 1984, 1998, 2000 and 2018, were built on this willingness to draw upon the talent and hunger of “new” French citizens and their descendants, who, in turn, embraced the responsibility and honour of representing what is their home, “this beautiful country, France”, as Mbappé put it; and few things grate as much as this with the far right.

This is no fairytale. The multi-ethnic, multi-faith rainbow France that was celebrated after the 1998 World Cup triumph, as if football had somehow reunited a nation riddled with ambiguities, empty promises and hypocrisy when it comes to race relations, is but a daydream. Yet the hope is real. In the end, who was shown to be correct, who was closest to what the nation actually wanted to be its future? The electorate delivered a clear verdict. If it knew one thing, it was that it did not want this future to be shaped by the Rassemblement National. There are circumstances in which saying “no” is not just the main thing, but the only thing, to quote a maxim of which Deschamps has always been fond, sometimes too much so. The true rassemblement was that of citizens who refused to accept the perspective of neo-fascism. Some of these citizens were footballers. If their first duty is to represent their country, they did it well.

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