With a Syrian refugee crisis at the hands of Europe, the topic of migration has been at the tip of everyone’s tongue for the better part of the last couple of years. These last days the subject has once again come front and centre, this time however, the French national team became catalyst.
Of their 23 players, 14 are either immigrants themselves or the children of African immigrants.
The team’s ethnic makeup led to numerous headlines, many of which crediting the win to Africa. People called it “Africa’s last standing team”, with “Les Bleus” becoming not only national heroes but the face of French immigration, and the proud results of diversity—ultimately begging the question of what it means to be French today.
The answer varies depending on who you’re asking. To the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, “Multi-cultural societies are multi-conflict societies”, and her anti-immigration opinions were echoed by many as she made her way all the way to the final round of the French presidential election. To her and to those who voted for her, being French required a certain level of white-washing and a certain level of secularism.
Faced with such opinions, policies that restrict migration, and a society where immigrants are targets to police brutality, France’s numerous immigrants and their children naturally find difficulty delineating their French identity.
But with a World Cup won by a team reflective of the nation’s diversity—a win that has been celebrated by everyone including those who oppose migration— France’s diverse immigrants found hope that it is in fact possible to be considered as French as their white or non-Muslim counterparts.
Not necessarily the win itself, but the celebration of ‘Les Bleus’ that followed—where the team’s African origins did not dispute their French-ness, meant to them that they too might actually be able to one day live out a fantasy where their identities are not contested – that they are in fact French, and simultaneously Black, Arab, Cameroonian, Algerian, Malian and Ivorian.
Unfortunately, though, it also meant that one of the few pathways towards an uncontested identity is to be fast, agile, and a swift athlete with the skills to make it on to the French national team and score a few goals.
The thing is, immigrants in France have to reach and succeed in elite spaces to be considered wholly French. And more often than not, once they tap into these spaces, society slaps on the title of an ‘immigrant success story’, which in reality is extremely reductive. These ‘immigrant success stories’ are underpinned by a rhetoric that reinforces the idea that ethnic minorities have to go beyond their western counterparts in order to be celebrated.
And in the end, it limits minorities further as people who only have traits fitting whatever stereotypes society has imposed upon them.
But while the World Cup win and its celebrations aren’t necessarily a reflection of the true realities of French society, it does give us a glimpse of what could be if both French identity and nationalism weren’t refuted on the basis of multiplicity.
A world without an immigration problem is a world where immigrants are not given identity ultimatums. It’s a world where you don’t have to be either French or African, nor half-French and half-African. It’s a world where one can exist as wholly both, where a hyphenated identity of French-African is a representation of two equal and uncontested selves.
That’s what two-thirds French team’s players are capable of living out. And even if it’s unclear to many, that’s what lies at the core of France’s World Cup celebrations. The national team’s French-African identity makes this World Cup win a reason to celebrate for the solely French, the solely African, and not least the French-African.