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Saturday, 7 May 2011

Race scandal shatters myth of integrated French team

Is French football racist? The front page of Friday’s Libération newspaper asked the question that has tormented the whole country this week.

French football is in crisis after revelations that the sport’s managing officials have considered unofficial – and illegal – quotas to limit the number of young black and Arab hopefuls in French training academies.

Secret recordings published by the investigative website Mediapart revealed that Laurent Blanc, France’s respected team manager, appeared to concur with measures to bar non-white players with dual nationality, who could go on to play for other countries after having been trained with French public funds.

The controversy comes at a sensitive time in France, when questions of race and nationality are in the spotlight as the extreme right and anti-immigration National Front appears to be making big electoral gains.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has deliberately taken his party further to the right in a bid to stem defections to the National Front ahead of a presidential election next spring.

The revelations have increased unease over these tactics. The scandal proved that “the arguments of the National Front have ended up invading all spheres of public debate and today are taking over French football”, said François Asensi, parliamentarian from the largely immigrant Parisian suburb of Seine Saint Denis.

Blanc, who was a member of the multi-ethnic team that brought home the World Cup in 1998, is heard making controversial comments on the tape about the choice of players.

“You have the impression that we only produce one kind of player: big, strong and fast . . . Who are the big strong and fast players? The blacks,” he is heard saying.

In the recording, Blanc insists he is not racist and the discussion appears to have begun with a debate on the skills of power versus technique in France’s team. But his comments appear to reinforce racial stereotypes by suggesting black players are limited to power and speed. “The Spanish tell me, “we don’t have this problem. We don’t have any blacks”, Blanc says on the tape.

The controversy has shattered one of the most powerful myths of modern sporting history. When France won the 1998 World Cup, the team was hailed as a powerful symbol of successful integration, bringing together “white black and Arab”. The casual comments by a well-liked manager, and the suggestion by France’s sporting officials that non-white players pose a problem, reveal that this was only ever a myth, says Patrick Mignon, sociologist with Insep, a sports institute.

“Football became a mascot that allowed us to speak of society’s problems through the success or failure of the team,” he says.

This week those same team members who symbolised social integration have broken the sport’s unspoken code to openly criticise the federation and denounce nascent racism.

Guadeloupe-born Lilian Thuram, Blanc’s team-mate in 1998, has called for sanctions.

The government has launched an investigation, alongside an inquiry by the French football federation, which is due to report next week.

But few believe Blanc will be sacked, unless there are more revelations. Though at first he denied the comments, Blanc apologised after the tapes were published. Chantal Jouanno, sports minister, has defended him, though she said he might have made inappropriate comments. Blanc is well-liked, and even Thuram has said he does not believe him to be a racist.