An ethnicity is only an ethnicity when it is convenient. Ask the France ambassador to the United States, who claimed in a letter to The Daily Show host Trevor Noah that the players with African backgrounds who helped his country win the Fifa World Cup were “French”.
They were not “Africans”, he said, responding to a joke Noah made in an earlier show that Africa won the World Cup.
The ambassador was insisting they were French because they had won the World Cup. In most other walks of French life, they would be “immigrants”.
Sport is ephemeral in its euphoria. A victory in a major event such as the World Cup can lead to an intoxication of the heart, in which feelings that never previously existed suddenly well up in the chest, in which hatred is replaced by superficial love and where reality is suspended as people overindulge in happy hour.
Once the narcotic of triumph wears off, it is back to what it always has been. In the hangover that follows, most can’t believe what they were saying, doing or feeling at their drunkard peak.
That a France packed with the sons of immigrants brought the country together is a myth. For a moment, yes, French people of all colours and background rejoiced as one, but it won’t last long.
The truth is that sporting triumphs do not necessarily unite a society, they merely mask its ills.
The fact is that many in France bear ill will towards immigrants and their families, most of whom are a threat to “the French way of life” and who struggle to gain equal opportunities in their favela-like enclaves in run-down areas of the country.
As American Muslim cleric Yasir Qadhi tweeted after the 4-2 World Cup final victory over Croatia: “If France was as racist towards its immigrant football players as it [is] towards most of its other population, they would never have won the World Cup … Hopefully that will change the attitude of some of them.”
At last year’s French elections, the party of far-right and anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen earned a third of the votes during the second round, representing 10.6 million people.
According to a study by the Defender of the Rights organisation, young blacks and Arabs in France are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police for identity checks than other groups.
In “banlieue” districts that are largely non-white, unemployment is two and a half times greater than the national average and in French prisons, 60 per cent of the inmates are Muslims even though they represent about 10 per cent of the population. And then there is the government’s decision to deny the right of Muslim women to wear the face veil.
The French government is also making moves to remove the word “race” from its constitution, to portray that fact that all its citizens are equal.
However, some human rights groups say it only serves to hide the struggles and inequalities suffered by minority groups.
For many minorities, football offers a path to equality, if only while they are in the limelight. Nineteen of France’s 23-man squad are either migrants or sons of migrants. While the country still bathes in glory and espouses a united France, the hope is that we can be proved wrong and that triumph of a massively talented squad can be a unifying force.
Certainly, the bigger the sport, the greater the impact, which is why the government of Israel is kidding itself if it thinks the Lacrosse World Championship is a victory.
Israel was given the hosting rights for the tournament, despite many human rights organisations accusing it of implementing apartheid policies and continuing to build illegal settlements on Palestinian ancestral land.
There was a minor call for a boycott of the tournament, which is ongoing, but its existence hardly serves as a backing of the Israeli government.
The fact that Argentina decided to withdraw from a football friendly in Israel, specifically because of the shooting of Palestinians protesting in Gaza, is a much bigger deal.
The lacrosse only reiterates the notion that sport doesn’t unite, it merely serves to mask.
Credit: South China Morning Post