During the last few decades, political discourse in France has been dominated by the issue of multiculturalism. On the one hand, France needs immigrants to support its generous welfare state at a time when its native population is aging. On the other hand, many French people worry that an influx of immigrants will dilute their unique culture and identity.
The attempted bombings outside the Stade de France held broader connotations for immigrant culture. By targeting the soccer game between France and Germany, the assailants were not only attacking a large congregation of 65,000 people, but also an emblem of racial harmony.
For the better part of two decades, the French national soccer team team has been a symbol of the benefits of French multiculturalism.
In 1996, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front party, criticized the French national team for including too many black and Arab players. He claimed that it wasn’t representative of the population and that “maybe the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of color.” Part of the evidence he supplied for the squad not being French enough was that they didn’t know the words to La Marseillaise, the national anthem.
His comments quickly politicized the players, who publicly rejected his views as racist.
About two years after, the team saw its greatest soccer moment ever, when it hosted and won the 1998 World Cup.
The squad was made up of several players of African and Caribbean descent, and the main hero was Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants. The team was affectionately nicknamed the Black-Blanc-Beur (black, white, and a non-derogatory slang word for Arab).
They became a symbol of a new, diverse, and successful France.
Michèle Tribalat, a researcher at the National Institute of Democratic Studies, said the team had done “more for integration than years of political will.”
In recent years, however, French attitudes towards immigrants have soured considerably, as indicated by the rise in support for the anti-immigrant National Front party (now headed by Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen).
The recent attacks in Paris will surely see a further uptick in anti-immigrant sentiment. The way the team fares in next summer’s European Championship, held in France, could be a huge factor in determining how the country grapples with multiculturalism in the years to come.
Tuesday, the soccer game between France and England went ahead as scheduled. Wembley Stadium joined the French team in singing La Marseillaise.