A victorious World Cup team made in the multiracial Paris banlieues

Football is the bit of French society where I’ve seen integration work best.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I covered France’s victory in the World Cup final, then fell asleep in my Moscow Airbnb listening to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” booming out from the French embassy’s party across the road. The French team had adopted the song, known chiefly in the Anglo world as a gay anthem, in 1998. After they won France’s first World Cup, it became a sort of footballing “Marseillaise”.

The day after the country’s latest victory, I flew back home to Paris, where I’ve lived somewhat accidentally since 2002. The city was recovering from a good weekend: first Bastille Day, the national party at which some unfeasible proportion of French people meet their future spouse at a fireman’s ball; then winning the World Cup; followed by the city’s emptying for the long French summer holiday.

The last time I saw Paris this happy was the night France won the final in 1998. Back then, people were predicting that the multiracial team’s triumph would banish French racism. Of course, it never happened. World Cups don’t change countries, but they can reveal truths about them. And this World Cup shows that France – including its multiracial suburbs, or banlieues, where about half the French players grew up – is a more successful society than most French people imagine. Yes, there is racism and exclusion and some home-grown terrorism. Yet this French team incarnated a banlieue that feels French, and was made by France.

You saw it during coach Didier Deschamps’ press conference after the final. Someone was asking the first question when a dozen French players burst in, chanting, “Didier Deschamps!”, and spraying the room with water, energy drinks and champagne. Just before they finally left, the ringleader, Manchester United’s midfielder Paul Pogba, shouted, “Vive la France! Vive la République!”

Clearly the French camp had prepared a PR offensive of explicit patriotism. Straight after the final, the players wrapped themselves in tricolours. These were gestures to French fans who still hadn’t forgiven the national team for going on strike during the 2010 World Cup. A mostly white population has a lasting suspicion of a mostly non-white team.

Yet the players’ patriotism is genuine, too. They were born and raised in France. Among their many identities, a core one is French. Pogba celebrated after the match with his mother and twin brothers, who play football for Guinea, and stuck a photo of his dead father on the World Cup trophy. He is black, Muslim, a Parisian, a product of his banlieue, Roissy-en-Brie, an African, and a quadrilingual European. (Fluent in English and Italian, he surprised us at the World Cup by answering a Peruvian journalist’s question in excellent Spanish.) He told French radio after the final, “Now there is no colour, black, yellow, everything, we are all united. Now you are all proud of us. Forever.”

For this generation of Bleus, multiple identities are natural. Antoine Griezmann, son of a German father and a Portuguese mother, who has lived in Spain all his playing career, happens to love Uruguay. After the final, a Uruguayan journalist gave him a Uruguayan flag, and Griezmann wrapped it around his neck. He’s still French, though.

The same goes for the multiracial crowds watching the game on giant screens in Bondy, the banlieue of the 19-year-old prodigy Kylian Mbappé. These kids feel French, though on another day they might cheer on other national teams as well. Mbappé has a Cameroonian dad and an Algerian mum – a classic banlieue mix. Almost all banlieues have plenty of white people, too.

The players feel French partly because they were made by France. Aged six, they joined their local state-subsidised clubs, where there were good fields and coaches with diplomas. I once visited Pogba’s banlieue, where his old youth coach Sambou Tati told me about the long struggle to dissuade little Pogba from dribbling the ball.

Almost every weekend during the season, I take my children to their game somewhere in the banlieue. Football is the bit of French society where I’ve seen integration work best. Both our team and the opposition are always multiracial mixes. One boys’ team we encountered was coached by a Muslim woman in a veil and tracksuit.

The state is more present in French banlieues than I’ve seen it in poor parts of Britain such as Birkenhead or north Manchester. In the banlieues I’ll often pass signs saying, “Construction site for new Metro station”. From about 2024, Grand Paris Express, Europe’s biggest public transport project, will connect the banlieues with Paris proper.

The street parties on Sunday night showed a country that is reclaiming its public spaces after the terror attacks of 2015 and 2016. The French were world champions of pessimism, the nation most likely to say in New Year surveys that things would get worse, but they have lost that title. They also now have a president with a genius for theatrical gestures that make people feel better about their country. And Emmanuel Macron is a lucky leader. You feel that if François Hollande were still in the Élysée, France wouldn’t have won the World Cup.

The mood won’t last. There will be more terrorist attacks, recessions, and misbehaving footballers. Yet whenever the French need cheering up, they can look across the Channel. England did lose to Croatia, and Britain’s electorate did fall into the populist trap that France sidestepped last year.

I’ll wash my clothes in Paris, then join my family on holiday. I’ve already learned from FaceTime that there is no greater joy on this earth than being a nine-year-old whose team has just won the World Cup. My children, like Pogba, identify uncomplicatedly as French. 

Simon Kuper writes for the FT

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump-Putin pact