Brésil! Brésil! Brésil!
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Against the odds, the French football team have qualified for the World Cup finals, to be played in Brazil next year. Condemned to the play-offs (les barrages), France were drawn against Ukraine and lost the first leg 2-0 in Kiev. No European team had ever overturned such a deficit in play-offs for the World Cup finals. But France won 3-0 in Paris on Tuesday night. Having overcome their “barrage contre l’Atlantique”, to paraphrase a book title by Marguerite Duras, the team can book their tickets to Rio, as we football pundits like to say. Poor Ukraine. They must have thought they had it in the bag.
France are coached by Didier Deschamps, who was captain of the team when they unexpectedly beat Brazil 3-0 to lift the trophy (as we also like to say) in Paris in 1998: hosts and winners, France joined the one-time winners club, which includes England (will they ever add to that one triumph?) and, the most recent member, Spain, who won in the snoozefest in South Africa in 2010. (World Cup tournaments can be very boring indeed.) The elite teams are Brazil (5 times winners), Italy (4), Germany (3) and Argentina and Uruguay (2 each).
“Black-blanc-beur”, a variant on the “Bleu-blanc-rouge” of the French flag, became the popular slogan attached to the victorious 1998 team, made up of white players (Deschamps and a few others), black players (including Patrick Vieira, who was born in Senegal) and players of North African origin (a beur being a second-generation North African living in France), exemplified by the peerless Zinédine Zidane. Jacques Chirac, the conservative president, and Lionel Jospin, the socialist prime minister, attended the final of course, and subsequently hit record levels of popularity in the polls. France was looking forward to a great harmonious future, newly at ease in its multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism.
But that future hasn’t really come to pass. It was too much to hope for. In the intervening years, there have been riots in la banlieue – that untranslatable term denoting satellite towns of grim tower blocks on the outskirts of the cities. In response Nicolas Sarkozy, as Interior Minister in October 2005, suggested the “racaille” (scum) should be hosed down with water jets (he later claimed he was borrowing the term from an aggrieved resident, but it did no harm to his presidential prospects as it turned out). More recently there were the terrible events in Toulouse in March 2012 when 23-year-old Mohammed Merah went on a shooting rampage, targeting French Muslim soldiers and Jewish primary schoolchildren – 7 people were killed including three children – before Merah was himself killed during a siege. Meanwhile Marseille, France’s second city, has seen a spate of gangland killings over the past few months. And it seems as though every professional sector has taken to the streets in protest at one time or another over recent years, while there have been bizarrely vocal demonstrations against gay marriage. Unemployment remains at levels that wouldn’t be socially acceptable in Britain and standards of living decline.
And then there’s the racism, which has always been brazenly expressed in France. The black Justice Minister Christiane Taubira (who was born in French Guiana) recently endured racial insults of a kind that have been heard recently in largely mono-ethnic Italy but that one wouldn’t expect to hear in France. Her boss, President François Hollande, was slow to condemn the comments – in general, apart from his surprisingly bold and rapid intervention early on in Mali, Hollande has performed rather sluggishly (his popularity ratings are very poor). He must already be feeling the breath down his neck of the young and hugely ambitious Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who has spoken of the Roma population’s “inability to integrate” – an unexpectedly hardline stance from a left-leaning French politician. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National (and daughter of its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen), is gathering alarming political momentum: her party stands to do very well at next year’s European elections.
In 2011 Morgan Sportès, who was born in Algiers in 1947 and whose work caught the eye of the late Claude Lévi-Strauss, published a novel called Tout, tout de suite (Fayard) that seemed to capture something of the malaise in French society. His book is rather dramatically precised on the back cover: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here. This book is an autopsy: that of our society in the grip of barbarism”. It’s not clear how one novel can be expected to do so much, but it does reconstruct a real-life event: in January 2006, Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old Jewish man of Moroccan extraction who worked in a mobile phone store in Paris was lured into a honey trap, tortured and murdered three weeks later. All the while his abductors, a large gang of black and Muslim youths known as “the Barbarians”, with strong anti-Semitic inclinations and a sense that young Jewish men were bound to have money, were in contact with Halimi’s family, demanding a ransom of €500,000 that they were unable to meet.
Sportès’s book is grimly readable: well researched, gripping and not a little shocking to those of us who find this world of depraved criminality alien. The dialogue is excellent and throws up such terms as “From”, “diminutif de ‘fromage’, c’est-à-dire un Blanc, un Gaulois”, “Feujs”, a pejorative term for Jews, and “keuf”, a cop. A “meuf” meanwhile is a "bint" .
In a front-page editorial in Le Monde last Saturday, we were told that the “for fifteen years, the performance of our football team has faithfully reflected the state of the nation”, and that since those heady days, “the collapse of the team has seemed like a cruel metaphor for the fate of the country”. (At its nadir the team refused to train during the finals in South Africa in 2010 and one of the players, Nicolas Anelka, is said to have turned the dressing room air blue in a confrontation with the hapless manager Raymond Domenech.) The editorialist blames this decline on unmerited huge salaries, large egos with little achievement to back them up, lack of national pride, this last perceived fault a gift to Marine Le Pen who is already complaining of too many foreign players in the French leagues (for “foreign” read African).
But the team have turned things on their head with what was by all accounts a very impressive win on Tuesday: so much for lack of pride in the French flag. The societal problems Le Monde alluded to remain. But the football team will after all be playing in the finals in the spiritual home of o jogo bonito. As the radio commentator screamed at the final whistle, “Brésil! Brésil! Brésil!”