The complicated relationship between France and its Black football players

France won the 2018 World Cup, 20 years after their first historical win. Lots of parallels were made between 2018 and 1998, and particularly comments about the diversity of the team.  

It is true that when you look at the French team, you immediately notice that a lot of the players are of African descent. Take Mbappe, the youngest player of the team. The 19-year-old striker's mother is from Algeria and his father's family is from Cameroon. Other players' roots can be found in Mali, Congo, Angola, Togo, Senegal, Guinea... However, only two of them were not born in France: Steve Mandada was born in Kinshasa, and Samuel Umtiti was born in Yaounde.  

The diversity of the French team is not something new, and it has been an ongoing subject of debate. In 2011, coach Laurent Blanc complained about the number of binational players in the French team, indicating that he would very much like it if, "without any racist connotations", there would be quotas to reduce those (mainly African) players from playing in the French national team.  

This year again, lots of comments were made about the team and their African roots. The team has been called "the last African team" in the competition, as a joke for some, very seriously for others. The Blackness of the players is seen as a way to deny their belonging to the French nation, be it by French people or outsiders. These players, who wear the French colours on the field, should not have their Frenchness questioned. Being of African descent does not mean that you are not part of the French nation. As the French parliament recently voted to erase the word "race" from the Constitution –the first article of the Constitution stated that the French republic insures the equality of all regardless of origin, race and religion, and "race" will be replaced by "sex"-, one can wonder on which grounds a country that refuses to acknowledge racial differences would question the identity of its Black players.  

Another thing that is worth mentioning is that some of the players come from the suburbs of Paris (banlieues) and have a lot of support from their communities there. Paul Pogba, whose mother is from Guinea, grew up in Roissy-en-Brie near Paris. Kylian Mbappe grew up in Bondy. However, on the day of the final, public buses from the suburbs to Paris were cut, stopping people living there from celebrating their players in the capital city. The banlieues remain a place of tensions for the French government and are often a place of violence for non-White people. A young Black man was killed by the police in Nantes at the beginning of the month, causing riots that lasted 4 days. A case that made more noise was the death of Adama Traore, a young black man who died in police custody in July 2016 in Beaumont sur Oise. His death sparked riots and protests in the suburbs. Excluding people from the suburbs, who already feel like they have been left behind by the state, from this national celebration, says a lot about how they are seen by the French police. 

What does the French football team teach us? That in France, when you are not White, your Frenchness constantly has to be proved. This month, it is by winning the world cup. Two months ago, it was Mamoudou Gassama who "proved that he deserved to be French" by saving a baby hanging from a balcony. French people love us, once we have proved that we can contribute to the nation's narrative of succeeding regardless of your background. 
Maïna Coroller-Larifla