Friday, July 14, 2006

Bastille Day

ZidaneOriginally I was going to post about how a recent PEN anthology of contemporary French writing, introduced by France's current ambassador t the US no less, predictably failed to include the work of even one writer of color or out gay, lesbian or trans author, but I'll save that for tomorrow or Sunday. Instead, I'm posting a short entry on some of the things that have occurred since the French team's appearance and loss in this year's World Cup final last Sunday. As scribes have recounted across the globe, the French side effectively lost the game when star captain Zinédine Zidane (at right, BBC/AFP) headbutted Italian defender Marco Materazzi, which led to a red card and Zidane's banishment from the game. Having already lost co-star Thierry Henry to an injury, France paid the price during the penalty kick phase as sub David Trézéguet could not score, handing Italy the victory. One of the major questions was why Zidane reacted so abruptly and violently, especially since he knew how important the game and his presence in it were. In my prior wrap-up post, I surmised that a physical incident, followed by trashtalking, provoked Zidane. I believe a French anti-racist group, SOS Racisme, had suggested that Materazzi called Zidane a "terrorist," although Materazzi denied this and implausibly claimed that he didn't even know what a terrorist was. (!)

Yesterday, Zidane explained to France and the world why he'd attacked Materazzi. According to a BBC report, Zidane stated on French TV that Materazzi insulted his mother and sister. He refused to utter the exact words that Materazzi had spoken, perhaps out of respect, but I have seen one report that suggests he called the sister a prostitute. One would imagine that whatever Materazzi said, the words must have crossed some sort of line for Zidane to take such an extreme response, though the facts that Materazzi had scored the equalizing goal and had been combatively marking Zidane could also have led to a temporary loss of control. Zidane's explanation was good enough for most in the French media, who resumed praising him (his sparkling playmaking throughout the tournament was undeniable, and earned him the top award), though left paper Libération appears to have wanted greater contrition. The overwhelming majority of French soccer fans also support Zidane.

Most interesting to me was Zidane's discussion, in his second interview, of racism in international soccer, supposedly the first time he had spoken so extensively and explicitly about a long-acknowledged scourge in that game. He requested that FIFA take a stronger stand in dealing with it. The French team, which comprised more players of African and Arab descent than any other European team (or the US, for that matter), had faced down racist commentary by right-wing politician Jean Marie LePen at the start of the tournament and some racist behavior during the match against Spain (whose league and international matches have been marred by racist actions against Black players), only to have to encounter another post-World Cup go-round when far-rightist Northern Leaguer and Italian senatorial embarassment Roberto Calderoli claimed that France had sacrificed its identity "by fielding a team of Negroes, communists and Islamists." (Some reports have slightly different translations.)

French defender Lilian Thuram's eloquent rejoinder to LePen deserves to be repeated to Calderoli and others:

What can I say about Monsieur Le Pen? Clearly, he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn’t know anything about French history or society.

That’s pretty serious. He’s the type of person who’d turn on the television and see the American basketball team and wonder: “Hold on, there are black people playing for America? What’s going on?”

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.

I would add that not only Le Pen, but the Chirac-Villepin-Sarkozy axis, and the entire French establishment have failed to come to terms with France's longstanding diversity, which is steadily increasing, not diminishing. Is there a leading Black or Arab French figure among the political opposition? If the Hillary Clintonesque Segolène Royal or another Socialist were to win the presidency, what Black or Arab or even Asian French political figures from the left could she draw upon for her cabinet? This is a problem, because France has the largest numerical population of Black, Arab and mixed-race citizens of any European country, and they effectively have little representation, politically or socially, except in popular culture. The ideal to which Le Pen, like a long line of ultraconservative nutcases appeals, disappeared around the time the Romans conquered Gallia. The banlieue uprisings of last year and earlier this spring were only the most recent expressive symptom of this, but it has been manifest in many other ways. CRAN, the association of Black French organizations founded by scholar and activist Louis-Georges Tin, linked this issue to Zidane's response as well.

So vive les Bleus, Zidane et la France, whose leaders perhaps might realize how much the Zidane incident could spark a badly needed national dialogue on a range of issues, rather than waiting for the next uprising to erupt in their faces, generating the customary but ineffective reaction.

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