State of the nation

France’s national anthem was booed once more, before a game with Tunisia, provoking a political storm. Andy Brassell reports

Politicians pronounce themselves shocked by a great many things, but this was certainly one of the least shocking. The real surprise was not the whistling from the stands at the Stade de France that met the traditional rendition of La Marseillaise before the friendly against Tunisia on Tuesday, October 14, but the fact that it raised so much as an eyebrow anywhere in the country.

Nevertheless, the next day’s media was awash with righteous (and rehearsed) outrage from the political classes, and French Football Federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes was summoned to the Elysée Palace for a summit with Nicolas Sarkozy and his cabinet. The resulting bluster was swift – by halfway through Wednesday, a government-approved statement delivered by the minister for health, youth and sport, Roselyne Bachelot, pledged that not only would any matches where the national anthem was whistled be stopped and abandoned immediately, but any future games against the opposition team would be suspended “indefinitely”, for a period to be decided by Escalettes.

The second part of the statement was a follow-on from Bernard Laporte’s pledge that France would not participate in “these types of matches any more”. The secretary of state for sport went on to “name and shame” by taking it upon himself to state that France didn’t want to “go through any more matches against Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia at the Stade de France”. The clumsy Laporte at least opened up the issue that all involved were trying to avoid facing – that delicate post-colonial relations and related tensions between France and the countries of the Maghreb were being carried over into the sporting arena.

The Paris friendly against Morocco in November 2007, when an estimated three-quarters of the crowd were cheering for the away side and whistling the home team, was a case in point. This was, however, by no means comparable to the most infamous example of these difficulties back in October 2001, when the friendly match with Algeria was abandoned in the 76th minute, after scores of mainly Franco-Algerian youths invaded the pitch chanting both anti-French slogans and support for Osama Bin Laden.

The 2001 incident was traumatic for both French football and society in general. It was a shock to anyone who really believed that the multicultural nature of the sides that won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 were symbols of perfect harmony in France. It also allowed right-wingers, while complaining about the whistling of the national anthem, to legitimise their oft-prejudicial statements by linking to the Algeria friendly and ­feeding public fear.

The real problem can be seen in a lot of the media reaction, even those condemning the French government’s response. Countless articles criticised Sarkozy and Laporte qualified themselves by beginning: “Whistling La Marseillaise is shameful and unacceptable.” In other words, the memory of 2001 stokes an unspoken and faintly ridiculous assumption that some kids whistling La Marseillaise with their mates in the stands is tantamount to some of them being future jihad participants. Looking back at the black-blanc-beur team winning the World Cup, much of the French media in 2001 asked “Where did it all go wrong?”, when 1998 only ever represented the possibility of a more united future, not a cure to all the social ills of a country. Because, ultimately, it was only a football tournament.

The politicians seem to have realised they have gone too far. By Friday Escalettes felt at a safe enough distance from the brouhaha to distance himself from the government stance, having never seemed less than bemused over how he would be expected to implement the government’s ideas – not unreasonably, as key questions, such as how many people need to whistle an anthem (one? 1,000? 10,000?) before a response is actionable and the security risks posed by shunting 70,000 fans on to the streets of Saint-Denis at a moment’s notice, are impossible to sidestep. By the following Monday, Laporte backtracked and accepted that disenfranchised youth may even require social solutions, magnanimously saying that he “wanted to help the youngsters”.

Perhaps the most balanced perspective on the whole issue came from arguably the man most wronged at the Tunisia game. Hatem Ben Arfa was born in France to Tunisian parents and was booed and whistled every time he received the ball during the match. He was nevertheless sanguine. “A lot of young people are there, they’re Tunisian, they want to show that and make themselves heard.” It comes to something when it’s left to a footballer to inject sensibility and reason into such a debate. 

From WSC 262 December 2008