Sports

A Beautiful Vision of a Country That Doesn’t Exist

What the children of immigrants see when they watch France in the World Cup.

Iya Traore, a former professional football player, balances a football on his head as he performs for visitors in the Montmartre area of Paris.
Iya Traore, a former professional football player, balances a football on his head as he performs for visitors in the Montmartre area of Paris, on June 9, 2014.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images.

The café-terrace intellectuals of France are spending the run-up to Sunday’s World Cup final in Moscow plumbing the team’s run for some deeper meaning. Human roadrunner Kylian Mbappé as the figurehead of Emmanuel Macron’s startup nation?* OK! Mostly, though, they’re wrestling with the question that pulses through the past two decades of French football: Does this multiracial, multiethnic team playing in perfect harmony serve as a model, an inspiration, a sign for a country riven by divides over race and religion?

Writing in Slate, Jean-Marie Pottier cautions against this fantasy, a kind of take confit that recapitulates the liberal wish fulfillment that greeted France’s sole World Cup win in 1998, and one that has not been borne out by the tumultuous intervening years. “The only thing the French can and should ask of this team is to provide a fleeting and enjoyable instant of national communion, not a remedy to their fears,” Pottier says. After the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016 and a prolonged state of emergency, wouldn’t a one-night party in the streets be enough?

Maybe the Left Bank can restrain itself. But the composition of the team does reflect and fuel a dream in the French suburbs. Not a dream of a harmonious, post-racial society—that, the children of Arab and African immigrants will tell you, is as ridiculous as the French claims of a colorblind state—but one of pride, possibility, and success on an individual level. “You want to troll French fascists?” writes Grégory Pierrot in a moving, conflicted essay titled “Fear of a Black France.” “Tell them the truth: the most French man in the world right now is a black kid called Kylian Mbappé.”

Last summer, a Nike ad on the side of an apartment building in Bondy, the suburb of Paris where Mbappé played as a kid, projected the 19-year-old striker five stories high. The slogan: “Bondy: City of possibilities.”

Some possibilities. Bondy is in Seine-Saint-Denis, the French department that wraps around Paris to the north and east. Formerly part of the city’s “red belt” of working-class, white communities that reliably voted communist, it has in recent decades become home to the children and grandchildren of immigrants from France’s African colonies. These cities, one bleeding into the next in some of the densest suburbs in the Western world, are separated from Paris only by a highway that encircles the city like a wall, but they feel far away from the City of Light’s monumental boulevards. If you look at a map of the low-income “priority neighborhoods” around Paris to which the French state distributes special funds, you’ll find they’re concentrated in Seine-Saint-Denis, which is uniformly known by its number among France’s 100 departments: 93.

Also concentrated in the 93, and around Paris more generally, is soccer talent. A third of the national team was born and raised in the banlieues around Paris. In the New York Times, Rory Smith and Elian Peltier write that this may be the world’s biggest pool of soccer talent, and that there are more soccer scouts lurking here than in any city save São Paulo (which is twice the size). Kids in the 93 get scooped up in great numbers by youth academies or selected for the French soccer academy at Clairefontaine. It shows: In 2013, France won the under-20 FIFA World Cup; the best player award went to Paul Pogba, from Paris’ eastern suburbs. Today, no country has more players in the top five European leagues than France.

About two-thirds of French pro soccer players now come from the Ile-de-France region around Paris, though the area accounts for less than 20 percent of the country’s population. It hasn’t always been like this. The ’98 team had only three Parisians; the ’84 Euro-winning team had just one. The children of African immigrants have created a new formula.

In Le Monde, sociologists Stéphane Beaud and Frédéric Rasera go so far as to argue that quick, tight play—like that backheel pass Mbappé released in the semifinal against Belgium—may owe something to the kind of flashy street soccer that Nike celebrated in its 2010 ads featuring Thierry Henry. (Is it any different from how kids learn to play soccer in Brazil or Germany? I’m skeptical.)

France has never been football mad. Its domestic league is a distant fifth in international stature after those in England, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Leading up to this World Cup, French people bought fewer jerseys than their counterparts in England and Germany. Even in this analysis-rich land, football metaphors were not always in style. “Until 1998, we never wanted to associated football and the national destiny,” Olivier Guez writes at Le Monde. “The results weren’t as high as the image the French had of themselves.” Many French prefer rugby.

Not so in the 93. “Young people are more motivated [here] than elsewhere to become pro players,” Jamel Sandjak, the president of the League of Paris-Ile-de-France, told Le Parisien last year. In the banlieue, football offers an outlet and an opportunity for young men—a field where, in a region with 23 percent youth unemployment, it’s easy to see guys who look like you, who grew up next door, treated as heroes (and cashing enormous checks). In the suburbs, Pogba told the FT’s Simon Kuper, “There is only football. Whether at school or in the neighborhood, everyone will play football. And that helps people to not stay in the quartier doing nothing, or doing stupid things.”

Which is not to say that the boys from the banlieue will be uniformly behind Les Bleus on Sunday. With the country’s Arab minority largely unrepresented on the national squad (the clinical Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema has been excluded from the team since his involvement in a sex tape blackmail scandal), French Arabs with Maghrebin parents may have seen more to like in Tunisia or Morocco. Still, a string of French victories has filled the streets of Paris in scenes that bring 1998 to mind.

You can bet that on Sunday afternoon in the 93 they will be watching Mbappé, the local kid made good. Soccer is a getaway car—and a reminder of how few other means of escape there are. “People come to the stadium to forget their lives for 90 minutes,” Mbappé told a French documentary crew before the competition began. “It’s up to us to give them that satisfaction; to take them out of their seat so that they can sleep with stars in their eyes.”

Correction, July 16, 2018: This post originally misspelled Emmanuel Macron’s first name.