As the identity of French footballers of African heritage comes up for public discussion, Ahmed Sule explores the issue

On the 15th of July 2018, the French football team defeated Croatia to win the FIFA World Cup for the second time. Of the twenty-three men selected for les bleus around fifteen of them were of African heritage. After Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia crashed out in the first round of the competition, Africans from Algeria to Zimbabwe celebrated the the French triumph as a little their own. Trevor Noah, the South African comedian captured the mood when he congratulated the French team, saying, “Basically, France is Africans’ back-up team, once Senegal and Nigeria got knocked out, that’s who we root for.”

There is now an emerging “whitelash” against those who dare “appropriate” some of the French players as African. Simon Kuper, a sports columnist with the Financial Times penned an article a few days before the final titled, ‘French system shapes success of Les Bleus’ African talent’ in which he concluded that a French victory is a triumph for the French system. The French Ambassador to the USA, Gerard Araud wrote a strongly worded letter to Trevor Noah in response the latter’s joke that it was an African team that won the World Cup. A number of French commentators have rallied to the ambassador’s defence by supporting his claim that the players are French.

They argue that because half of the players in the squad come from the poor banlieues of Paris or Lyon, it’s actually these environments that should be credited for the players’ successes. They suggest that in the last five World Cups, there have been sixty Paris-born participants and use this as a basis to conclude that Greater Paris is global football’s best talent pool. While they find it easy to use the players’ linkage to Paris to draw inference about the success of the French team, they find it difficult to use the same inference to connect any of this success the players who have African names and grew up with African cultural influences.

Simon Kuper, in his article, noted, “French sons of African immigrants are better footballers than any raised in Africa. That is because they are products of France — in ways good and bad.” This sort of analysis smacks on the white supremacist narrative about the inability of African peoples to shape their destiny without help from the white world. Whenever black excellence emerges in white spaces, it is often punctuated with the word – “Because”. Serena Williams is a great tennis player, BECAUSE, she is playing in a weak era. Kenyans dominate the long distance BECAUSE athletics is their escape route out of poverty. In 2018, we now read that African-heritage players in France have been successful at the World Cup BECAUSE of the French system. The use of the words “talent” and “refined” in reference to the black and brown French players relegates the players to brutes who have to be taken out of Africa and refined in France to make a worldwide impact.

A false equivalence has been created by comparing Africans “appropriating” black players to white nationalists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, who recognise the players as Africans and not French. When people of colour speak out on race issues like racial discrimination or affirmative action, they are sometimes silenced with words like “reverse discrimination” or accused of racism with words like the French Ambassadors rebuke of Trevor Noah, “It seems you are denying their Frenchness. This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.”

The eagerness to strip the French players of their African heritage by Western commentators is a classic example of the good immigrant narrative. There is often an asymmetric recognition of people of colour in the West based on whether they are good apples or bad apples. The good apples of colour are recognised as citizens while the bad apples of colour are dismissed as immigrants at best, and criminals and terrorists at worst. Mesut Özil, the German international footballer expressed this sentiment recently when he wrote, “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

This would not be the first time that a prominently black and brown French national team has been classified into the good apple category. After les bleus’ victory at the 1998 World Cup, the French media, French public and French politicians celebrated the black and brown players. They were showcased as exemplary French citizens and shining examples of a post-racial France. The trend continued two years later when the team won the European Championship. The honeymoon period ended abruptly at the 2002 World Cup when the French team failed to qualify for the knockout stages. The players of colour then morphed from good apples of colour to the bad apple of colour as their commitment and patriotism were called into question.

The French system is congratulated for producing sporting excellence from its diaspora communities. Yet it’s some external aspect, an intrinsic African or Otherness that’s blamed when these communities are facing issues of poverty, violence and exclusion. I am not saying that the players are not French, but African. I simply wish to acknowledge the hypocrisy of a selective attitude with regards to what the French system can claim responsibility for when it comes to communities of colour.

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Ahmed Sule is a CFA Charterholder, Chartered Accountant, photojournalist and social critic. He also obtained a Certificate in Photojournalism at the University of Arts London. He has also worked on various photojournalism projects including Obama: The Impact, Jesus Christ: The Impact, and The Williams Sisters. He cites Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Kwame Nkrumah and W.E. Du Bois as his major influences. Find him on Twitter @Alatenumo

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