Algeria’s historic qualifying match for the 2014 World Cup was the source of mass celebrations and joy across France where spontaneous parties erupted across the Hexagon, from Paris to Marseilles. Broadly jovial in nature, a number of these celebrations required police intervention, and despite a heavy security presence, 74 arrests were reported and dozens of cars set ablaze, as acts of violence marred the festivities. Prime Minister Manuel Valls condemned the violence as “unacceptable” and warned of repercussions against those who were spoiling the festivities for those who are both “French and Algerian”.
As further matches ensued, Algeria vs South Korea and more recently Algeria vs Germany, security provisions were increased to counter a further number of disturbances. Recollections of a 2001 France vs Algeria match in which the game had to be interrupted 76 minutes in due to fans invading the pitch were raised as a warning of possible chaos which could follow a France-Algeria confrontation in the World Cup quarter finals. As it turns out, France vs Algeria won’t be happening, but the football-fuelled disorder was seized upon by the ever resourceful Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, to steer national discussions towards some of her party’s most regressive policies. On this occasion, the unrest was used as an opportunity to resurrect the FN’s battle cry since 1989, for an end to dual nationality. “You are either French or Algerian”, declared Le Pen, qualifying the violence as reflecting the “refusal by binationals to assimilate”. Designating the motivation of some troublemakers as a “spirit of revenge”, Le Pen sought to frame the tensions as part of a historic struggle between France and Algeria, while others within her party suggested binational delinquents should be stripped of their French nationality, which when unpicked is only a short step from demanding the expulsion of French Arabs who may break the law.
According to the National Institute for Democraphic Studies (INED), a mere 5 per cent of France’s metropolitan population is binational, of whom 90 per cent are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Among dual nationals, attachment to country of origin is actually linked to a strong national identity, contradicting the FN’s claim of an inherent tension between them. What’s more, many French citizens who hold dual nationality do so for reasons of necessity. Morocco, for example, does not allow its citizens to relinquish national identity and others may have foreign parents and wish to hold on to their heritage.
But the truth is that many of those who will have been active in the violence were not dual nationalist, but French citizens, some of whom will be of Algerian heritage. Le Pen’s rhetoric, although on the face of it about immigration, actually resurrects subtle forms of racism which confuse those of north African heritage with immigrants and in so doing, deny them full equality as citizens. This latest invective, which seeks to draw the boundaries of national identity according to loyalties to football teams, represents Le Pen’s appropriation of domestic disturbances linked to alienation, poverty and in some cases straight-forward misbehaving, for exclusivist claims concerning national identity. In so doing, the mask of propriety adopted by the far right in recent years as it has sought to rebrand itself as a “moderate” nationalist movement focused on immigration and the EU, but not avowedly racist, slips. Apparent beneath it is a presumed incompatibility between Algerian and French identities, a belief in their intrinsic difference and distinctiveness and a reassertion of white French superiority as the legitimate designator of the boundary of identities. And this in a country where 70 per cent believe there are too many foreigners. Despite immigrants only making up 11 per cent of the French population, a figure not drastically different to elsewhere in Europe, a recent poll found that 55 per cent of the French believe immigrants don’t make an effort to integrate. This figure speaks to the persistence of national debates which question the integration of what are predominantly French citizens of foreign heritage, but whose identity continues to be discussed within the context of immigration.
Football allows for the unbridled expression of nationalist fervour, but it also offers an insight into the complex nature of identity, politics and belonging in diverse societies in which coexisting identities have historical tensions and contemporary complexities. Le Pen cares little about football, but she does value the opportunities popular expressions of nationalist zeal offer her in terms of advancing a narrow vision of French belonging. Her statement was rightly condemned by anti-racism campaign group SOS Racisme as “hate-filled and stigmatising”, but it is actually the broader debates which spin off from her bombastic declarations which pose the greater concern. Despite a recognition of the absurdity of her demand, within hours a poll had been set up to establish whether there was popular support for her demand, while commentators and personalities debated the issue which she’d successfully established as worthy of concern. On this occasion, as in others where the Far-Right have led the national debate, the political weakness of both the Left and the Right, the former discredited for successive failures and the later embroiled in the latest corruption scandal, leaves the way wide open for Le Pen and her divisive project.