Just in time for France’s showdown against Portugal in the Euro 2016 Final, a white red who grew up wanting to be black explains why he’ll be cheering for Les Bleus. SBS presents the first installment in what will be a semi-regular series of rants on the always controversial intersection of sports and politics:
Dispatches from Left Field aka The Vanguard is in the Bleachers
The Conflicted Radical’s Guide to Euro 2016 or How I Learned to Just Stop Worrying and Love Les Bleus
For a left-wing trade unionist brought up on Public Enemy and stories of family members marching against racism, war and corrupt governments both near and far, “watching the game” has never just been “watching the game.” Whether it was my old man screaming out “fascists” at pretty much any opposing team that he didn’t like or the way mom – an itinerant fan at best who still figures prominently in this origin story — would make sure to point out which country used to be colonized by who and therefore where our family’s loyalties should properly lie, sports in our house was always connected to the outside world, and always to politics. You couldn’t even relax during commercials because every time a Coors Light ad would come on my dad would treat all in attendance to another from-the-sofa history lesson about the “motherfuckers who fought to keep out the union.”
So how did an angsty young white-boy, reared in an anti-establishment home – the kind of teenager that sulked down to the wood-paneled basement, angry at the world, to listen to militant hip-hop and watch “SportsCenter” — how did that kid become an unabashed flag-waving supporter of the land of wine and cheese? How did he – I – become a supporter of one of the most barbaric colonial powers in the history of the planet? Well the answer is simple; like the great Sigmund Freud, I blame my mother.
And speaking of my mom, if anyone could have a historical chip on their shoulder against Les Francais, it could actually be her, the child of an immigrant woman whose Russian and Polish background were enough to get her French government papers declaring her as good as “stateless.” Spoiler alert: moms was actually born in France, but to a refugee single mother in a post-war Paris where those from lands to the East were treated with the same type of scorn that so many Arabs and West Africans suffer regularly there today. Childhood poverty, an immigrant mother who worked a string of low-wage jobs in a country that would never totally accept her – that might be enough to raise a daughter none too happy to sing the French national anthem and pledge allegiance to her birthplace. Good thing there was no French equivalent of Public Enemy at the time.
But there are two sides to every croissant… and my mother grew to love life in Paris and the many opportunities it gave her. Not the least of those benefits being a world-class education accessed completely free of charge (even for the child of an immigrant – didja’ hear that America?). So as she came of age in the land of liberté, égalité, and fraternité my mom excelled in her studies, made friends, and ran home from school for bits of bread and chocolate like all the other good little boys and girls. At the same time, years of class room interrogations about her last name and background and her own mother’s continued servitude in the homes of the Parisian One Percent also laid the foundation for my mom to become something of a hybrid enfant terrible. From protesting the French occupation of Algeria to standing toe-to-toe with striking French workers in May of ’68, my mom’s evolving relationship with her country was and still is a complicated one.
But when the legendary French Footballer Zinedine Zidane — the one they call “Zizou” — led a super -talented multi-cultural squad to greatness in the World Cup finals in 1998 and then again at the Euros in 2000, mom and the rest of our family stood and cheered. We celebrated the team’s brilliance on the pitch. We celebrated the great chemistry between “Zizou,” the graceful midfield playmaker, and Henry, the dynamic striker. And we celebrated the greatness of working class Frenchmen born to immigrant parents in rough places like Marseille and the banlieues of Paris (Zizou and Henry respectively) who overcame obstacles to become the best in the world. And it definitely wasn’t lost on any of us that those immigrant parents came from former French colonies. Mom didn’t have to point it out that time – we knew Zizou’s family hailed from Berber country in Algeria and Henry’s from the Antilles. That made donning the Coq Sportif all the more righteous and yet subversive at the same time.
But before we get all bleary-eyed and pour ourselves another Lillet let us remember that for all the promise that Zizou and Henry and company portended for the direction of a new post-colonial multi-cultural France, there have been more than a few troubling reminders that all is not well in Gaule. The violent uprisings in the banlieux in 2005, the rising popularity of Far Right Nationalist Front politicians like Marine Le Pen (“How you say…Le Trump?”), and even the recent controversy around the French Football Federation’s refusal to include embattled star player Kareem Benzema on this year’s side are all signs of a country that has struggled to live up to its revolutionary ideals.
The Benzema case, especially, has given pause to legions of French football supporters, this one included. A publically gracious figure who continues to proclaim both his innocence and love of La France – tweeting things like “once a bleu always a bleu” – he has become a flashpoint for a volatile national conversation on immigration, Islam, and the conduct of celebrity athletes. The accusation that he was involved in the attempted blackmailing of a fellow teammate by a group of French Arabs is certainly disturbing but almost more unsettling is the idea that he hasn’t even been proven guilty and yet a significant part of the French population has already made up their minds based on not much more than his North African heritage. A National Front official related to Marine Le Pen even went so far as to say that if Benzema didn’t like being left off the squad then he could go play for Algeria; never mind that the man was born and raised in France.
So for a kid who was spoon-fed anti-racism and anti-colonialism since he was wearing environmentally friendly, biodegradable diapers, rooting for Les Bleus, in a weird way, became a kind of catharsis. A way to make peace with complicated histories. A way to celebrate the struggles of immigrants who came to the West to give themselves and their children a second chance at a better life; as cleaning ladies, or as teachers, or as star half-backs wearing a nation’s colors on their chest.
This year’s showing in the Euros again leaves the French at the doorstep of history. As they face down another former colonial empire in Portugal in today’s final, I know my family and I will all be rooting for Les Bleus. Not because we think France is perfect or the best, and not because we aren’t totally disgusted by the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment there – because we are. And not because I’ve sold out my political principles based on a “bourgeois notion of nostalgia,” as some of my more hardened comrades tell me while they break my balls for the one-thousandth time. No, when my family shouts “Allez Les Bleus,” it’s because we’re hoping that the beautiful game, played by a beautiful group of immigrants and the sons of immigrants – Like Dimitri Payet, Patrice Evra, Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Moussa Sissoko – might just be able to elevate us all to somewhere better than we are right now.
Plus mom likes it when I say nice things about France and a wise man once told me that there never stop being perks for kissing up to your mother.