By Chloé Meley
As extreme heat and heavy storms took over most of the country, France held its breath, regularly breaking the tension by striking up ‘La Marseillaise’, tirelessly waving a myriad of flags, the colours of the nation decorating the majority of people’s cheeks. We cheered loudly in union, with joy and relief, clumped together in overcrowded bars, throughout the numerous plot twists. The final whistle liberated the whole country of the lingering tension that had built up inside of us throughout the World Cup, as we watched the French team get closer and closer to the trophy, one unpredictable match after another. Suddenly, it was time to celebrate. The legend of 1998, which had become ingrained in every French person’s memory, for those who were there, and imagination, for those who were told about it, seemed to have been revived.
Joy was pouring in the streets, animating people’s faces everywhere I turned. Unity was no longer a tedious and out of reach political project, but a fundamentally instinctive force, a natural process; materialised in the hugs, embodied in the chants, manifested in the attitude of adventurous young men helping each other climb lampposts and fountains.
I enjoyed every minute of it. The elation that came with the victory was delightful, a moment I will remember and a story I will tell.
However, the World Cup is not merely about the exultation that sweeps through the entire nation when the players lift the trophy, it is an event that cannot be separated from its politics. In France, it notably highlighted various racial dynamics and drew attention to a narrative of colour blindness which runs deep in French political culture.
The team’s diversity and the African roots of the majority of the players are facts. But the originally innocuous statement which arose from it, namely that the French team was the only African team left, became up for interpretation and ripe for debate. The assertion that started out as an amusing remark and as a way for the African diaspora to shift their support to ‘Les Bleus’ once the continent’s five teams were eliminated, also ignited a divisive discourse. Diversity was seen in a negative light by some. Players’ origins were discussed, the very ‘Frenchness’ of the team questioned. The fact that those men were French citizens, representing their country in an international tournament, wearing the nation’s colours, was entirely eclipsed. Suddenly the players were African, and therefore, not us.
On the other end of the spectrum, people praised such diversity, embracing unity as the primary value, advocating for a France who does not see race. This is also an issue. It is a more insidious form of erasure from the conversation. A subtler way of silencing minorities.
The discourse of indivisibility, of uniformity, of oneness which the World Cup produced in France is reflective of the pervasive colour blindness which has taken hold in the home of the world champions. Claiming not to see race, to the point of removing the word from the Constitution, goes hand in hand with France’s own sense of self rooted in whiteness. Refusing to acknowledge race as a social concept with material effects on the lives of minorities enables the perpetuation of whiteness as the norm, while depriving people of the tool with which to discuss and challenge such norm. Not saying the word race does not make discriminatory racial dynamics disappear. Pretending not to see people’s’ skin colour does not suddenly grant them a privileged position in a society that does see colour. It deprives those people of a space in which they can have their grievances heard and taken seriously.
Celebrating France’s diversity is essential, but not through the lens of colour blindness. Colour blindness allows us to face the other way when racial dynamics are at play, when discriminatory instances are being brought up, when our own biases come to the surface. It creates a comfortable space for those who are not at the receiving end of prejudice. It frames unity in a naïve way, as something that is in the eye of the beholder, rather than something that depends on the amendment of social structures.
Therefore, I believe it to be crucial to see colour, to acknowledge its significance in French society. As we rejoice in our victory, we ought to understand the impact racially-charged policies and narratives have on communities, the same communities our beloved players are from.