At a time when racial tensions are running high in France it is hard to believe that only seven years have passed since the same country showed the world what can be achieved on the sports field when differences are put to one side for the common good.
Aimé Jacquet’s FIFA World Cup winning squad was a beautiful mix of players with antecedents from Guadeloupe, Martinique, Argentina, Senegal, Poland, Portugal, Ghana and France; and it was inspired by Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants whose goals in the final against Brazil threatened to straddle the racial divide in France, for a moment at least.
The recent disturbances in French suburbs where disaffected youths, largely from immigrant backgrounds, have been rioting in protest against unemployment and discrimination stand in stark contrast to the scenes on 12 July 1998 on the Champs Elysées where millions of French people gathered for their celebration of the century.
The efforts of the French football team alone may not have succeeded in binding together a fragmented society, but it can be argued that sport remains the country’s best example of successful integration. Since May 1998, the LICRA (Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l'Antisémitisme) organisation has been working in close association with French sport, and in particular football, to promote racial harmony in the country.
“In terms of the playing side, football is an example of where social integration has succeeded,” LICRA’s vice-president Carine Bloch told uefa.com. “There is no discrimination at any level, from amateur clubs through to the professionals. Considering the influence that football has on young people, we regard it as an ideal medium for us to get our message across.”
The World Cup success presented France with a platform on which to build, but Bloch feels more should have been done to exploit the changing mood. “It was a missed opportunity,” she said. “The events that summer were important - the number of extreme right-wing voters fell, and for the first time people started saying that a multi-racial society was a good thing. But the government did not put much thought into how this could help other areas of society.”
If discrimination is absent from the playing side, it remains as present in the country’s stadiums as in any other sector of society. As the higher powers began to acknowledge the malaise, LICRA lobbied for legislative change. In the past, sports associations were the only bodies permitted to take action against racism in sport, but since 2000 anti-racism organisations have also had power to intervene.
LICRA now work closely with the clubs to try to rid the tribunes of racism, offering training to security staff and gathering intelligence on the troublemakers. They have also turned to supporter groups for help. One of the most active anti-racism groups is Horda Frenetik 97, a section of FC Metz fans who sit in the Tribune Est at the Stade Saint-Symphorien. Founder member Grégory Pilchen said: “We wanted everyone to support the team together, and not look at certain players differently because of their race. Those who didn’t share that philosophy were refused from our group.”
In 2001 they set up a network with likeminded groups throughout the country, but it was not until the following year that they gained significant support. “The election results [the far-right National Front reached the second round of the French elections] made people realise racism was an issue,” Pilchen said. “We now have links with almost every club from Ligue 1 to CFA2.”
Horda Frenetik 97 help educate young people on racism, organising excursions, concerts and football tournaments, as well as handing out leaflets on matchdays and displaying banners in the stadium. They also take part in an annual festival with other groups in the network. But for all the efforts that are being made, it would be difficult to argue that racism is on the decline. Last season a section of Lille OSC Métropole supporters arranged themselves in the stands in such a way as to form a racist symbol during their game with AS Saint-Etienne, while SC Bastia players Pascal Chimbonda and Franck Matingou were racially abused by their own fans.
Yet Bloch remains confident. The Action Week organised by Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) attracted great interest in France last month; in early February next year UEFA will be joining forces with FARE, the Spanish FA and Barcelona FC for Europe’s second ‘uniteagainstracism’ conference; while LICRA themselves are receiving more support from the French Federation.
“I’ve never been so optimistic,” Bloch said. “I don’t condone violence in any way, but there has never been so much constructive discussion as we’re having at the moment. France will never make up for the time it has lost, but at least now the problems are being addressed.”
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