Abdel Bari Atwan
The French Football Federation (FFF) is facing mounting accusations of racial discrimination against players of Maghreb origins in their selection for the Euro 2016 squad. National team manager Didier Deschamps has excluded Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema and Nice forward Hatem Ben Arfa from the national team and it is suggested that this is because of their North African origins.
The legendary French footballer Eric Cantona and the French-Moroccan comedien Jamel Debbouze have explicitly accused the FFF of bowing to pressure from racists for their exclusion of the men whom Cantona described to the Guardian newspaper as ‘great players’; Cantona added that ‘Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today’.
Debbouze suggested that the decision not to select any of ‘our representatives’ might provoke unrest in the poverty-stricken projects on the outskirts of many French cities where immigrants tend to be housed.
The accusation that the decision is driven by racism might be difficult to prove given that 13 of the 23 players selected are non-white French nationals and include Adil Rami who is of Moroccan origins. Rami was selected at the last minute when Raphael Varane presented with a grade two injury to a thigh muscle and had been outspoken about his exclusion from the squad, telling RMC, ‘I have the impression he [Didier Deschamps] is insinuating that I’m not a good guy and that I’m a lout’.
Benzema was suspended by the FFF in December after he was implicated in a sex-tape blackmail plot against French national team mate Mathieu Valbuena. A banning order which prevented him from having any contact with Valbuena ruled him out of selection for the French squad but this was removed in March by a judge in the case making him legally available for selection. Deschamps has been accused of ‘hiding behind’ the ongoing case against Benzema in order to exclude him.
Football is very popular among France’s Moslem community of Maghreb origins which has faced increasing Islamophobia since Islamic State attacked in Paris and Brussels, killing more than 150 people and wounding hundreds.
The discord in French society that these decisions might cause may also reflect on the morale of the French team and its performance in Euro 2016.
Several countries in the West, including the US, have issued warnings to their nationals to take preventive security measures, and follow every precaution while traveling to Europe in anticipation of terrorist attacks. Newspapers in Europe have also spoken about the vulnerability of games in this competition to terror attacks, particularly by radical Islamic elements, similar to what happened in Paris itself and Brussels.
The selection of players should surely be on the basis of their skill and achievements as sportsmen but when it comes to France there are precedents leading one to question if this is always the case. Samir Nasri, another great player who is a French citizen of Maghreb origins and who is a key player for the Manchester City team which won the League Cup in February, has repeatedly been left out of the national squad. Last year he announced he would no longer play international football in protest at his exclusion by Deschamps from both the 2014 world cup and the 2015 UEFA cup.
Sport can be an effective social and political tool, promoting diversity, inclusion and co-existence. Top players from the Maghreb may be dissuaded from playing for European teams if racism begins to impede their career progress.
In 1998, France won its first world cup with a ‘colour-blind’ team selected on merit which included the great Zinedine Yazid Zidane, now the coach for Real Madrid, who was born in Marseille to Algerian parents.
With Islamophobia on the rise in France, and the electoral successes of parties like Marine le Pen’s National Front, now more than ever, the selection of Moslem players would have been important to restore national faith in the slogan which is meant to inform French society: ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’.