Editor’s Note: Myriam Francois is a Franco-British writer and academic. The opinions expressed in the article belong to the author.
In Europe, an exclusivist and xenophobic form of nationalism is dividing our countries and making life increasingly hard for minorities across the continent.
In April, French President Emmanuel Macron warned in Strasbourg that “there seems to be a European civil war” between liberal democracy and rising authoritarianism. Macron may have been thinking of recent electoral outcomes in Italy and Hungary, where right-wing parties rode the wave of nationalism to power.
But in France, a toxic brand of nationalism has been flexing its muscles for well over a decade. This dangerous ideology now dominates debates over what it means to be “truly” French.
France’s World Cup victory, with a team made up primarily of Black and Muslim players, may have been perceived internationally as the collective celebration of an ideal of social mobility and racial equality, but in France, that vision is deeply contested.
A recent poll suggests that 51% of French people think the leader of the French far right, Marine Le Pen, represents a “nationalist and xenophobic” party and 73% don’t think she’d make a good president. But the reality is that Le Pen’s views have bled into public discourse so consistently that her narrow view of identity and belonging now shapes many French people’s sense of nationalism, in a country that has long taken pride in its ideals.
This is most obvious in the ways in which not only have mainstream parties adopted some of her ideas – they’ve even campaigned on them.
It’s her brand of nationalism that now frames public debates on issues of identity.
Politicians openly call for Muslim women to be banned from beaches for wearing “burkinis;” schools prohibit mothers in headscarves from attending school outings using the figleaf of “laicité;” and public intellectuals think its avant-garde to write novels describing a Muslim takeover of France. This is the new normal in France today.
In fact, despite their seeming opposition to her, A recent French poll suggests that a majority of French people back Le Pen’s ideas.
According a study from last June, 66% believe traditional values are not protected enough in France, 60% think there are too many immigrants in France and 48% believe Islam and Muslims have too many rights in France today.
So what was needed from Macron on Sunday was to deliver a vision of French nationalism that could truly have capitalized on what the French team could be seen to represent. The best of our “banlieue:” faith and national belonging. Cultural pride in your heritage and nation. Sporting excellence and charitable giving. The team’s multifaceted stories and success are the perfect antidote to the far right’s strangling of French identity.
Instead, all we got was one word: “Merci.”
Beyond his wild cheers and clear enthusiasm, where was Macron’s inspiring speech about France’s neglected children rising up the ranks, confidently representing their intersectional identities and in doing so, embodying French pride?
This speech wasn’t simply desirable – it was downright necessary. In a country where the far right has now cemented its place on the political map – outpacing both the traditional left and right in the last presidential election – forging a new, collective “us” is a moral imperative.
In a perfect example of how Le Pen capitalizes on certain public debates for her own divisive cause, in 2010, when the French team crashed out of the World Cup in South Africa, she framed the issue to fit her narrative, claiming that the problem was down to the team having “another nationality in their hearts.” Where was the riposte to that on Sunday when the same boys brought it home for France?
While so far, a majority of French people might not vote for Le Pen’s party, her electoral ideals have widespread support – which of course, is why she is rebranding her party, now “Le Rassemblement Nationale,” literally “the national gathering” – a softer, blonder, more feminine re-packaging of nationalism.
After Sunday’s win, Le Pen tweeted her congratulations to Didier Deschamps, the white coach, omitting anything but a broad reference to the players. No mention of the footballing prodigy Kilian Mbappé, the kid from the rough banlieue of Bondy, of Algerian and Camerounian heritage, who became the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele in 1958, and who donated his World Cup fee to a charity for handicapped children.
If French nationalism ever needed a focus for its inspiration, Mbappé would be it. He is, in many ways, the embodiment of the “French dream.” And in him, Macron had the opportunity to sell us a new vision of shared belonging. Instead, we’re left with an ebullition of nationalist zeal, with no redirection and only one politician channeling it. Without redirection, I fear this fervor will simply fuel the existing fire.
In today’s France, it simply isn’t enough to hope this victory can plaster over the cracks.
On Sunday, the French sociologist Edgar Morin tweeted that the victory of the national team was an occasion to celebrate the “one and multicultural” France. “Let’s enjoy these intoxicating moments of fraternity which won’t last long.”
There can be no real fraternity until a politician has the guts to advance a new sense of national belonging which pays homage to the stories and contributions of all those who make up the nation. Until then, the national pride stirred up by this victory could turn out to be an own goal.