L’Equipe Tricolore: “Black, White, Berber” or “Black, Black, Black?”

22 May

About a week ago each country that will be competing in the 2010 World Cup submitted a preliminary 30 man roster to FIFA. The final 23-man squads will not be known until the 1st of June but these preliminary rosters have caused quite a stir. This is the point in the countdown to the World Cup where fans find out which faces will be representing their country and their national identity to the World. To see the list follow the link below


There have been some notable exceptions of big names that have raised some eyebrows such as Ronaldinho from the Brazilian Seleção and Benzema and Viera from the French national team. However, those familiar with the history of the French national team will not be surprised that 18 of the 30 players on their preliminary roster are black. Many of those 18 will end up in the starting 11 and it looks like France will once again field a team that is not “traditionally” French.

It is necessary to have a little background on the history of immigration in France in order to understand how it is possible that the majority of their team is non-white. It is also necessary in order to understand the response that the French public has had to these teams. There was a large influx of immigrants from former French colonies after World War II. The first wave arrived in the 1950s, but the major arrivals happened in the 1960s and 1970s. More than one million people, from the Maghreb region in northern Africa which includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania immigrated in the 1960s and early 1970s. As of 2006, the French national institute of statistics INSEE estimated that 4.9 million foreign-born immigrants live in France (8% of the country’s population). Furthermore, the number of French citizens with foreign origins is generally thought to be around 6.7 million according to the 1999 Census conducted by INSEE, which ultimately represents one tenth of the country’s population. The immigrant population in France is especially visible in neighborhoods on the outskirts of urban areas such as Paris. Racial tensions in France have boiled over in recent years and there have been large riots that have resulted in violent clashes with the police after cars were burned and businesses were looted and burned. The riots are a mixture of violence between the residents of the neighborhoods with large immigrant populations and the state (largely in the form of the police) and between different groups within the neighborhood itself including the immigrant population. There was a large riot in Paris in 1995 that caught the world’s attention and brought to light the disparities within French society. This happened during the build-up to the 1998 World Cup which was actually being hosted by France that year. The 1998 French national team is where our story begins in terms of how it came to look the way it does today.

If football mirrors society then it would appear that the French should be commended for their work in integrating their immigrant community into the rest of society. Their 1998 World Cup team was put forth as a shining example of what multi-ethnic France was capable of. Football mirrors society but France has chosen to use a funhouse mirror which has distorted reality in such a way that is both appalling and hilarious at the same time. The racial make-up of the French national team in 1998 by no means meant that there was an overwhelming appreciation or celebration of those who are descendants of immigrants. Their ability to make it into this top tier of elite football by no means meant that they would have had the same success had they tried their hand at business or politics. In most cases, were it not for their wealth of skills on the field, they probably would have gone the same route as the rest of the youth from their community and ended up in low paying jobs in the service sector. I am clearly skeptical of the extent to which the diversity of the 1998 World Cup team helped to heal an ailing France that was tearing itself apart from the inside. However, it would be unfair to completely dismiss the positive side of things.

L’Equipe Tricolore: Berber, Black, White. Winners of the 1998 World Cup.

One undeniably positive thing that came out of the success that the French national team enjoyed in the 1998 World Cup is that children of immigrant families now had heroes who looked like them. Zinedine Zidane, was idolized by children of Algerian immigrants living in poor areas throughout France and became something like a patron saint for these communities. I won’t delve too deeply into Zidane’s story in this post because I plan on having a separate post for that specific purpose. Suffice it to say he played a crucial role in affirming a positive sense of self worth for Algerian descendants living in France and proved that an Algerian descendant is capable of making a valuable contribution to society. I will admit that the multi-ethnic team that France fielded was progressive for its time. There is a great deal of politics that goes into the selection of the national team as they are seen as ambassadors of culture to the world. On the world stage every four years they are the actors, all eyes are on them. Even in countries like Brazil, a supposed “racial democracy”, there have been instances where the national team has been “whitened” and Afro-Brazilian players were excluded because Brazil wasn’t as keen to present that side of itself to the world. For this reason, I think it is admirable that France, as the host nation of the 1998 World Cup chose to field a team in which minorities were represented. The trouble is that not all Frenchmen would agree with me in this regard and there were sharp criticisms of what some considered as over-representation.

One of the nicknames for the French national team is Les Tricolores or L’Equipe Tricolore (The Tri-color Team) in reference to the blue, white, and red colors of the French flag that are used in their jerseys. Since the 1998 World Cup team the Tricolore has taken on a racial dimension and is now thought to represent the mixture of black, white, and berber (ethnic minority of Algeria) players on the national team. The multiracial makeup of the team has at times provoked controversy. In recent years, critics on the far right of the French political spectrum have taken issue with the proportional under-representation of white Frenchmen on the team. For example, National Front politician Jean-Marie Le Pen protested in 1998 that the “Black, Blanc, Berber” team that won the World Cup did not look sufficiently French. Mr. Le Pen is and was a very influential politician and the fact that he felt comfortable expressing openly that he thought the team was “artificial” because there were too many “players of color” is a bit frightening.

In terms of French football it seems that the age old saying that history repeats itself rings true. If we skip over the embarrassing run that France had in the 2002 World Cup in which they failed to win a single game or score a single goal we find ourselves in a situation that greatly resembles 1998. One change that occurred over time is that there were far more non-white players on the national team by 2006 (16 of the 23 man squad) and they dominated the starting 11. Aside from that, the banlieues of Paris ignited in racial riots again in 2005 and the success of the national team (France made it all the way to the final only to lose to Italy in penalty kicks) was touted as a unifying force.

World Cup  2006, the French national side that finished in second place

A well known French-Jewish philosopher named Alain Finkielkraut gives his opinion on the state of the French national team below.

People say the French national team is admired by all because it is black-blanc-beur. Actually, the national team today is black-black-black, which arouses ridicule throughout Europe. If you point this out in France, they’ll put you in jail, but it’s interesting nevertheless that the French national soccer team is composed almost exclusively of black players.

He brings up two interesting points, one is that he feels the color of the national team arouses ridicule from other European countries who presumably have “whiter” teams. This ridicule targets France more than any other European country because it is one thing to have a few black players on your team but a completely different thing to have that team be dominated by black players. He also mentions that to talk about these sort of things openly will get one in trouble. However, this hasn’t stopped Le Pen from making further comments about his disapproval of the direction the national team has gone. Before the 2006 World Cup, he said France ”doesn’t totally recognize itself in this team,” because there are too many ”players of color.” He also told the daily sports newspaper L’Equipe that “perhaps the coach went overboard on the proportion of colored players.” He then goes on to offer his insight into the waning support and lack of enthusiasm for the team that has been labeled black, black, black. “The French don’t feel totally represented, which surely explains why the crowds are not as supportive as eight years ago,” when France won the World Cup, he said. He’s not the only public official to speak out about their aversion to the current state of the national team. Two weeks ago, Georges Frêche, the Socialist president of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, was quoted as telling a local council that he was ashamed that so many of the 11 starters on the French national team are black. “It would be normal if there were three or four; that would be a reflection of society,” he was quoted as saying. “But if there are so many, it’s because whites are no good. I’m ashamed for this country. Soon there will be 11 blacks.” Finkielkraut was a bit off when he said that to talk openly about these issues in French society would have you thrown in jail. However, there were political repercussions for Frêche as he was thrown out of the Socialist Party after he made these comments. Lillian Thuram, who by the age of 34 had played over a hundred matches for Les Tricolores responded to Le Pen’s comments that insinuated that the players on the national team were “artificial” Frenchmen.

“When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. It doesn’t matter if we’re black or not, because we’re French. I’ve just got one thing to say to Jean Marie Le Pen. The French team are all very, very proud to be French. If he’s got a problem with us, that’s down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants.”

Thuram has since retired from football and started a foundation (The Lilian Thuram Foundation) that is working on understanding and addressing racial issues in France. He is an advisor to the Haut Conseil à l’intégration (HCI) (High Commission for the Integration of Immigrants), a position which allows him to come to the defense of his fellow players when they have been victims of racist attacks. He has a quote on his website that resonates with the Stand Up. Speak Up. campaign that Frenchman Thierry Henry spearheaded in collaboration with Nike (see previous post).

“ The world is a dangerous place to live. Not so much because of those who do wrong, but rather because of those who stand by and watch, allowing bad things to happen. ”
Albert Einstein

“ And you, where do you stand? ”
Lilian Thuram

I would like to conclude this post with a statistic that I found quite shocking and which I think sums this all up pretty well. On the 2006 French World Cup team 17 players out of 23 were from ethnic minorities, which outnumbers the 11 black members of parliament (out of 577). If Le Pen wants to complain about lack of proper representation maybe we should start with this.









For a brilliant film on racial tensions in France I would strongly recommend La Haine, it’s one of my favorite films.


One Response to “L’Equipe Tricolore: “Black, White, Berber” or “Black, Black, Black?””

  1. Daliso May 23, 2010 at 9:34 am #


    Good of you to shine some light on the racial dynamics of the FNT. I think the subject of immigration and national teams could be pushed forward with a comparative analysis on immigration and naturalization rates for different European countries + America. To what degree might France be consciously scalping the best of African and Arab immigrant talent in direct opposition to its stated immigration policy? Naturalization benefits for athletes have definitely improved the US medal tally in the Olympics, if not directly impacted the game of football. Begun at a time when non-whites already dominated popular games like football and basketball, such policies haven’t been so lambasted as un-American as the FNT’s for being un-French.

    It would be interesting to know whether there is a higher rate of immigrants playing for France than in other adopted countries, and whether this directly related to a strong post-colonial connection to France which is unrivaled in former colonies. Apart from this, perhaps you could address the players’ psychologies: it would seem that a guy growing up in a France that sees him as non-French could be easily persuaded to play for his parents’ homeland instead of a country in which he is a second class citizen. What prompts players to forsake their motherlands that embrace them (often birth countries) to play for countries that see them as outsiders? Obviously the reasons are multifaceted- the players have actually grown up in France so they may feel more often French than not, they might be political refugees without a chance of playing at home, they might be swayed by the international celebrity that comes from playing on the French side versus a West or North African side, or maybe they may have just gone with whatever country called first. There’s a stockpile of memories and patterns there that could prove highly instructive.

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