Oct 312009

(asked by Sarah from New York)

I’m a huge follower of the French “Ligue 1” and French National Soccer team. But, I’m constantly perplexed by the French fans. They boo their team from the minute they walk onto the field. I’ve gathered from your previous posts that the French people in general like to complain… But how do they expect them to win when they don’t receive any support from their fans? And, how can they be angry when their players leave “Ligue 1” if this is how they are treated?

I am fascinated/disgusted by the French government’s reactions to the whistling of the Marseillaise when France plays its former colonies (Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia). Are they really shocked? I am under the impression (please, correct me if I’m wrong) that the French government prefers its immigrant population to assimilate- did they not anticipate a backlash? I’ve heard that the government has decided that future games where the national anthem is whistled will result in the match being abandoned. Perhaps you could help explain to me how soccer matches became symbols of political opposition to the French government (with the whistling of the national anthem and booing of the French players of Maghreb descent) and why the government responds by completely overreacting?
First of all, know that I really don’t care about soccer, I don’t remember the last time I watched a game from the national championship (Ligue 1 or 2), I may have been 10 years old or something. The only soccer I watch are the Euro and World Cups and I usually cheer for the English team (because it’s fun to watch a England’s game in an English pub), I cheer for France only when they play teams I hate (Italy and Portugal mostly, because they can’t play without cheating).
That being said, I think I can answer most of your questions as they don’t treat as much about soccer itself as about what’s around it.
First, the question I can’t answer is why fans boo their teams in “Ligue 1”… I have no idea… Do they? I always thought it was the other team they booed.
Now, I doubt that it’s because they’re being booed that French players go play in the English, German, Italian and Spanish leagues, but more a question of money and going to play where the level of the game is actually interesting.
Concerning the French national team, it’s been inconsistent constantly since the early 90’s, so I assume it gets frustrating for fans.
Now, the booing thing is a quite recent thing in my opinion, and it comes from the fact that the current team sucks… It’s full of amazing players that are stars in their own championships, but there’s no team spirit at all. While the 1998-2000 team was a real team with almost a family spirit (and that team will stay as the reference for years to come), the current team is just an addition of great players, but some of them don’t even talk to each other, the younger ones behave as divas, disrespect the older ones (including the few that remain from the 1998-2000), and then there’s Raymond Domenech, the coach… I don’t even know where to start with him, he’s as disconcerting as it comes, capable of the best (bringing the team to the finals in 2006) and the worst (pretty much all of the rest), to the point that half of the team dislikes him and half of the French population secretly hoping that France doesn’t qualify to the 2010 World Cup so that he finally gets fired.
Now, why some fans would go to the stadium to boo the team is a mystery to me. I’d like to boo it too sometimes, but I won’t bother going to the stadium to do so. But I guess if you’re a soccer fan it must be really frustrating to see your national team being capable of the best but delivering mediocre performances at best, and then have the coach saying that he’s happy with a tie game. So you still go to the stadium, hoping that this time, they’ll finally start playing the way they should and could, but of course they don’t. I guess that’s also the reason why some people still attend Detroit Lions games.
At this point I must remind everyone one thing: soccer is not as popular in France as it is in many countries or as football is in the US, so most of the French population doesn’t not see the National Team as some sort of embodiment of the nation, but more as some random guys that are very good at soccer and that happen to all be French.
Add to that the fact that patriotism is a very different concept in France as it can be in the US, and you’ll understand why sports is not necessarily a symbol of national pride for most people.
That being said, sports have recently become a matter of national pride for the current government. This comes from this larger endeavor it currently have about reviving all the symbols of patriotism (see the current controversy with Eric Besson’s Marseillaise in schools bullshit… I know hard to follow which controversy I’m talking about with Eric Besson, when you’ll read these lines, he most likely will have started another one), which has the tendency to infuriate both the liberal French, French people from foreign descent and simply foreigners in general.
Liberal French understand all the historical and social implications that entails. Remember that World War One as one cause and one cause only: that kind of patriotism. All fascisms too. They also understand why first, second (and more) generation immigrants feel insulted by that. It basically means “forsake your own culture and identity or leave.”
And this is the reason why the Marseillaise is more and more booed during games against North African countries. Now, one must not be mistaken. It’s not the Moroccans, Algerians or Tunisians that boo the Marseillaise as some sort of passé grudge from the time of the colonies. No, it’s the French citizen from North African descent that boo the Marseillaise during those games as a way to show that they feel as second class citizen (because let’s face it, most of them are). During those games they decide not only to cheer for the country of their parents or grandparents but to boo the team and anthem of their country as a political statement, to show they don’t feel French despite what their passport says.
And why is the government is overreacting?
Well, have you seen who our government is? A bunch of incompetent conservative nationalists with authoritarian tendencies. There’s much more to expect from them.
Hope that answers your questions (even if there’s much more to say about this)

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  4 Responses to “Of Soccer, Patriotism, Nationalism and the Marseillaise”

  1. Thanks for answering my question- I do think it is interesting how political soccer events can be in France. How some people can view a single event as representative of a larger problem. I found this article to be really interesting on this issue- http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1850831,00.html

    But given that it was probably from an American perspective, I wanted to ask a French person to see if there would be any strong differences in interpretation.

  2. You're welcome.

    Just a few things: Soccer is political in every country where it matters more or less, not only France (it's actually much more political in some other countries)

    This must be brought into the larger context of what the French government is trying to do with national identity right now (push for a more American and/or 19th Century style patriotism), it goes to having singers sing the National Anthem in games now (just like in the US, before that, it was just a record). The immigration minister launched a big "wag the dog" campaign about the whole thing just today, I'm sure it's in the English speaking news (didn't have time to read them today) and I'm sure I'll have the occasion to talk about it here sooner or later.

    And yes, I pretty much agree with everything that's being said in this article.

  3. "A bunch of incompetent conservative nationalists with authoritarian tendencies."

    Hey! We resemble that remark! Harrumph! Why we's even specialize in that sorta stuff ("we" being us Yanks).

  4. Yes, the current French government has pretty much decided to turn France into the US as much as it can. Unfortunately, it has also decided to use the Bush administration as its model. (the only difference is that we're not invading countries for kicks… yet…)

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