When I heard that the World Cup was going to take place during my study abroad, I was excited because I would be able to cheer on the French team, but I didn’t have very high expectations. When France won against Argentina, I was incredulous. When they made it to the finals, I was watching with my host brother, and together we went to the Champs-Elysées to celebrate. The streets were packed with people cheering, and fireworks and flares lit the night sky. The first–and only–time they had won was 20 years ago, so I couldn’t believe my luck. I would be able to witness their historic second win.
Although I’m not usually a big sports fan, I caught World Cup fever like everyone else. A couple days before the match, I bought a Mbappe jersey in anticipation of the final, and I was fully ready to celebrate at the Champs-Elysée if Les Bleus won. For those couple days, I felt a kind of closeness with France that I hadn’t felt before. I felt just as French as my host brother and his friends as we cheered in the streets, despite the language barrier. They even taught me how to cheer and urge on the team in French. During those couple days, as we eagerly awaited the final match, I was French, for all intents and purposes.
After we won the World Cup, I was ecstatic, of course. It was an incredible experience, to be able to see France unite and celebrate. From what my host family told me, the only time France ever shows so much national pride is during the World Cup, and indeed, I’ve never seen more French flags flying than during the few days after France’s win. It brought people together like nothing else did, especially given the make-up of the team. Many on the team have their roots in francophone African countries like Algeria, and it was incredibly heartening to see such undivided support given the xenophobic and at times racist rhetoric that has marked the rise of far-right politics in Europe. During France’s first World Cup win, the team composition was much the same; in fact, they were called the “Black, White, Beur”, with Beur representing those of Maghreb descent.
And yet, within this solidarity I could see hints of the underlying tensions as well. In class, we discussed Trevor Noah’s humorous “Africa won the World Cup” line, as well as the French ambassador to the US’s rebuttal. In his letter, he claimed that to call those on the team African instead of French undermined their French-ness and gave legitimacy to the racist idea that to be French is also to be white. Part of this has to do with the difference in approach to immigration–France has long had a policy of assimilation, where immigrants become “French”, while in the US, immigrants generally integrate into society while keeping their own culture. In France, Trevor Noah’s remarks were widely criticized, but they do reflect the underlying tensions that have always been there.
Although it may not be as easy to see, the events surrounding France’s victory at the World Cup do reflect the deeper, underlying tensions that continue to exist. It was fascinating for me to see how France views what it means to be French, and how it attempts to deal with racism in society. I don’t think that either France or the US are more successful–they have different approaches, and each has their own challenges, but to be able to understand how the French think about what it means to be French is important to understanding many of the problems in French society.