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From the World Cup to the 'Great Replacement': Football and Racist Narratives in France

[Image from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Image by Gisele Teresinha/Flickr.] [Image from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Image by Gisele Teresinha/Flickr.]

Football is the greatest of all sports. And yet, despite the beauty of the game, what happens can become so distasteful that it is difficult to continue watching. I cannot help but feel that during the World Cup, a wide coalition of imbeciles is actively plotting to ruin my pleasure. I am not speaking of Luis Suarez and the biting incident but instead of France and Algeria. If you are following the competition, you already know that Algeria qualified for the knockout stage on Thursday night for the first time, after a draw against Russia.

The team is not particularly brilliant, but they have some gutsy players who demonstrate both discipline and ability to counter attack quickly, which are important qualities in a time when possession football is facing a period of major questioning. Moreover, talented young players such as midfielders Sofiane Feghouli and Yacine Brahimi, both born in Paris region and both who play for Spanish teams, add a welcome technical touch.

Unsurprisingly, the Algerian press celebrated this qualification as one of the greatest sporting achievements in the country's history. In France too, this victory culminated in several large celebrations in the street - replete with horns, ululations, firecrackers, and Algerian flags. The after-party also led to clashes between groups of so-called supporters and the police. More generally, the Algerian victory has provided the perfect fodder for the loathsome and longstanding Petainism[1] that characterizes the French far right. 

Ruining the Party

Before an analysis of some of France’s most twisted minds, I should start by describing the clashes that occurred Thursday night. After the demonstrations of jubilant Algerian fans, a small minority of youth confronted the police in various cities across the country, such as Lille, Marseille, and Lyon. Some of them lit fire to garbage cans, torched cars, smashed shop windows, and exchanged stones and tear gas with anti-riot squads. In Lyon, where I happen to live, the battle lasted for one hour in Bellecourt square, which is in the wealthy, bourgeois, center of the city. According to the police, more than sixty mortars were found that day in a grocery shop in Vaulx-en-Velin, a neighboring suburb. Sixty mortars...Consequently, these events fueled imprecise and/or malicious press reports and served to further tarnish the image of the Algerian community in France. The sporting success has now been almost systematically associated with urban violence.

But what exactly happened in Lyon? Is there some kind of malediction or cultural atavism that makes these kids go out at night and turn the football party into a prime occasion for the old white proto-fascist right to speak out? Obviously my point here is not to exonerate those who decided that this was a good moment to destroy a few bus stops and burn ten scooters. I am skeptical that their actions were a call for social emancipation, and they also have very bad timing regarding the visibility of the Muslim community (the unrest occurring just before the beginning of Ramadan). I am also weary of the current tendency to romanticize all urban clashes as a revenge of the lumpenproletariat.

Yet, one must also keep in mind the longstanding tradition of state and police violence in France, and especially in the urban area of Lyon. As Mathieu Rigouste pointed out, this was one of the first locations where the French state tested out used new forms of urban territorial management. One of the first riots of what Rigouste calls the “security era” occurred in 1971 in La Grapinière, a complex of high-rises in Vaulx-en-Velin.[2] Since the 1970s, the outskirts of Lyon have been outposts of urban renovation and police brutality. Combined with socio-racial segregation, the implantation of a literalist Islam allowed the malicious portraying of these suburbs as a “land of burqas,” and thus the growing stigmatization of these neighborhoods. More generally, police systematically target the visible minorities in France with harassment. Lately, one has seen that football matches, and the spilling out of fans onto the street has been a moment of controversy and provocation. For example, a Youtube video from Lyon shows a police officer beating up an Algerian supporter on the Lafayette bridge. The video has been circulating and widely shared online. On Thursday night, the atmosphere was even more tensed since an overtly fascist group called Bloc Identitaire announced an “anti-racaille” operation, which is to say a xenophobic vigilante patrol.

It appears that these clashes were both foreseeable and dreadful. They were foreseeable because the state is unable to accept its responsibility for the socio-economic segregation that has existed for decades, and because racist discourse is more violent and uninhibited than ever. This reinforces the stigmatization of a category of precarious young men. They were dreadful because the media spent the day announcing the events, without invoking the factors of racism or social inequality, merely mentioning that Algerians were involved. At the end of the day, when media excitement is based on the repetition of short, non-contextualized sound bites, the causal link is reduced to the lowest common denominator. So Algerians + clashes = Algerian are predisposed to provoke clashes. While this might seem simplistic, and even vaguely amusing, it is obviously worrying when a so-called youth association is organizing patrols in yellow jackets and rangers in order to protect the white population from the North African thugs.

Petainist Dogs are Out and Eager to Bite

In France, it is a common slogan to shout at the anti-riot police: “Pétain, come back, you let your dogs out!” (“Pétain, reviens, t'as oublié tes chiens!”). During the last decade, these hounds have been liberated. Now, they speak on national TV and also took part in governing the country under Nicolas Sarkozy's catastrophic presidency (2007-2012). This old-school Petainist trend among the French elite prospers on defeatism. It is by criticizing the national community that it can implement its agenda, which is based on a pathologic nostalgia of the pre-roman era (they would love to be Gauls), a virile quest for the restoration of authority, and an obsessive search for a scapegoat. Since the end of the Algerian revolution and the collapse of the French empire, the scapegoat is most of the time the non-assimilated immigrant (rather than the Jew).

What does this have to do with football? As the Washington Post pointed out, the French national team is largely comprised of players who come from various part of its former colonial empire. Already during the 1970s, the two international central defenders Marius Trésor (born in Guadeloupe) and Jean-Pierre Adams (born in Senegal) used to form what was called the “Black Guard.” Later, the victory in 1998's World Cup allowed a enchanted vision of the integration of immigrants (“la France Black, Blanc, Beur”). Yet, it was not long before the team lost momentum and had fewer and fewer victories to celebrate. Without missing a beat, the Petainist sycophants reappeared to prosper on defeat and denunciation. After the disastrous 2010 World Cup, the grotesque philosopher Alain Finkielkraut explained the sulking of twenty-two football players by referring to Elias and the process of de-civilization[3]. According to his acute judgment, the spirit of the delinquent suburbs was slowly destroying the spirit of the noble Polis (“On voit l'esprit de la Cité se laisser dévorer par l'esprit des cités”). Sign of the growing institutionalization of Petainist thought, Finkielkraut just happened to be appointed as a member of the Académie Française, the so-called assembly of the most brilliant minds of the country. What is important here, is that the designated scapegoats were a few players labeled as “caïds” (Patrice Evra, Nicolas Anelka, and Franck Ribéry), a term borrowed from Turkish that refers to indigenous administrative chiefs in colonial Algeria. It is also important to point out that none of them were of North-African origin.

Nevertheless, the far right now has to cope with the fact that the French national team has been quite good for the last six months. The only thing that Petainist public thinkers such as Éric Zemmour can possibly do is to celebrate the French coach, Didier Deschamps, who reestablished the “traditional values of the French peasant society” such as “rigor, order, and hard work.” But this celebration of the providential man lacks the exultory power of their usual denunciations. This is where the Algerian national team and its supporters provide welcome targets. Indeed, since the beginning of the World Cup, far right propagandists have been extremely active on the internet in portraying the violence and the lack of patriotism of Algerians fans. This intoxication campaign drew on the systematic manipulation of images as well. For example, it was claimed that a building fully decorated with Algerian flags was located in Barbès, Paris (and so what?), when it was actually in Algiers.

As I have already mentioned, the Petainist strain of the French far right likes nothing more than defeat.[4] Yet, unfortunately for them, striker Islam Slimani scored a goal and tied the match. In so doing, he not only qualified his country for the "group of sixteen," but he also brought joy to a great number of people on both sides of the Mediterranean (myself included). He also gave the Petainist right wing an occasion to express its frustration and hostility to everything that questions the longstanding domination of the white old male. Indeed, it is remarkable that members of the Front National and of the former ruling party, Sarkozy's dying Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) found nothing better to do than to denounce this result because the Russian goalkeeper was allegedly disturbed by a laser. One of them even dared asking for Algeria's disqualification since “they cheated.” Beyond these delusional statements, the truth is that it was poor goal keeping from Akinfeev, who already made an enormous mistake during the first game against Korea. Yet, following a long tradition of treason among the Petainist elites, they sided with Putin's Russia (French far right loves Russia) rather than with a team in which two-third of the players carry a French passport.

“The Algerians Just Scored. Are We Going to Die Mommy?”

Obviously, this hostility is not directed against a random target but a highly symbolic one. Algeria embodies the fear of an invasion of France from its former colonial subjects. This fear of an inversion in the balance of power has been fueled by the memorable occasion when Algerian fans invaded the pitch in 2001, during the only friendly game between the two countries. Unfortunately, the obsessive republican rhetoric of assimilation never prepared the citizens to face the complex reality: France is a society of immigration. Rather, the simple causal links--i.e. cultural explanations--are still dominant. As I was walking down the street on Friday morning, I passed a mother and her son. He asked her why the garbage can on the street corner had been burned, and she answered: “It is the Algerians. The seventh district is like that now.” So, it seems to be official. Not only did the Moors take over our land, but they will also be plundering our farms and feasting in our castles. According to a lunatic from the far right microcosm in Lyon, they were already burning churches after their victory against Korea last week.

When reading the article from Le Monde that reported on the clashes in Lyon, I noticed the testimony of a commentator describing his last trip in Lyon. According to him, he was surrounded by women wearing the hijab and experienced the actuality of the “Great Replacement.” This was an explicit reference to the xenophobic theory of Renaud Camus, according to which the French people are being rapidly replaced through cultural change, education, and immigration. Many well-known reactionary thinkers, such as Zemmour or Rioufol, have echoed this view. Indeed, the question of the imposition of a radical cultural shift bring together the elitist Petainist trend and the inherently violent fascist groups. The main point seems to be that no co-existence is possible. Simply put, we cannot live together. If the “Other” crosses my borders and trespasses on my land, this is because he wants to take it from me. And if there is one historical example of the impossibility for us to share the same land, it is Algeria. Indeed, the simple idea that three Algerian soldiers could participate in the 14 July parade on the Champs-élysées was presented as the biggest offense to the heroes who gave their life for the country.

From this perspective, there can be no settlement, no cohabitation, and no forgiveness. The country is doomed to play out the same routine that was defined thirteen hundred years ago, when Charles Martel, one of the most important historical figures for the French far right, defeated the Arabs at Poitiers. This binary and racial division is both anachronistic and deceiving. All the attempts to draw a portrait of France based on the fake opposition between Gauls and Moors repeat the same clichés on violence and clash of civilizations. Thus, many facts of elided, from the historical importance of the white European migrants to the relation between North Africans and Zmigri (those born in Europe from Maghrebi origin). These nuances were rightly underlined by Arthur Asseraf in his welcome critique of Andrew Hussey's book for Jadaliyya.

For social and demographic reasons, football has been an ideal ground to analyze these questions, since it has been a means for the social advancement of the “children of urban segregation,” who are mostly from foreign origins even while they are born in France.[5] For example, both the French and the Algerian Federations were forced to reflect on a strategy to regulate the growing number of young players who have both French and Algerian nationality. These bi-national players have become a political and sporting stake. Yet the choice of which team a player joins is less informed by national loyalty than by the chance to have an international career or by attempts to attract promising young players. Nevertheless, we keep asking them to choose between one fealty or another, the same way commentators cannot imagine that Algerian fans can also support France (or Italy). As expected, the World Cup embodies the representation of sports as a childish metaphor for war, as nations are locked in a permanent struggle to achieve a better ranking. But the demonstrations of joy from the Algerian diaspora, from France to Canada, reminds us that postcoloniality is also synonymous with co-presence, something that gives birth to an a wide range of tensions as well as opportunities in an increasingly transnational space. Between urban clashes and racist discourses, there must be some room to enjoy the game together. Indeed this unique occasion could come sooner than expected. If France and Algeria win their next game, the two teams will meet for the next round.

[1] From Philippe Pétain, a French high-ranking officer who took over the country during the routing against Germany and implemented collaboration with the Nazis. This trend of French far right must no be amalgamated with authentic fascist movements, since it has a much more a backward-looking and reactionary political agenda, and no ideological links with socialism.

[2] Mathieu Rigouste, La domination policière, Paris: La Fabrique éditions, 2012, p. 40-45. 

[3] Given his academic background, Finkielkraut should know that Elias explains the process of decivilization drawing on the case of Germany under the Republic of Weimar. Thus, the comparison between the inappropriate behavior of a football team and the rise of Nazism may seem slightly far-fetched.

[4] On the tradition of defeatism among the French anti-popular bourgeoisie, see Marc Bloch, L'étrange défaite, Chicoutimi: éditions de l'UQAC, 2006 (1940), p. 103-104.

[5] Stéphane Béaud, Traîtres à la nation? Un autre regard sur la grève des Bleus en Afrique du Sud, Paris: La Découverte, 2011.

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