World News

France’s World Cup Win Is a ‘National Relief’ After Attacks and Racial Tension

PARIS — The bells of Notre Dame rang out, subway conductors sounded their horns across Paris and crowds packed the Champs-Élysées for the second day running Monday — an explosion of joy washing over France even greater than 20 years ago, when the country last won the men’s soccer World Cup.

Posted Updated

Adam Nossiter
, New York Times

PARIS — The bells of Notre Dame rang out, subway conductors sounded their horns across Paris and crowds packed the Champs-Élysées for the second day running Monday — an explosion of joy washing over France even greater than 20 years ago, when the country last won the men’s soccer World Cup.

But that new delirium speaks as much to France’s recent past as to the happiness of the moment. There has been an eager embrace of cross-cultural celebration since the match ended Sunday evening — a sharp contrast to the divisions of race against race, city against suburb, immigrants against natives that were exacerbated by the terrorist attacks of 2015 in Paris and 2016 in Nice.

“It’s a kind of a national relief after the attacks,” said Patrick Weil, an immigration historian who teaches at the CNRS research center and Yale.

At a moment when Europe is strained by hostility toward dark-skinned migrants, the winning French soccer team’s nexus of African-origin stars is seen as an implicit rebuke to countries that have historically been less open to immigration.

Croatia, the team that France defeated in the final, all of whose members are white, represented a country that has “forced back asylum-seekers and migrants,” Human Rights Watch said on its website.

In France, the crowds surging through the streets Sunday and Monday mirrored the winning team: multiethnic and multicultural. Black, brown and white had no problem coming together, dancing together and waving the country’s flag together — a rare occurrence in France.

The attacks had been forgotten, for now.

“There are people of all origins,” Alexis Canto, 23, said of the team, amid the celebrations at the Champs-Élysées. “It’s in the image of France — a team that is representative of France today. We’re all kind of immigrants, when you get down to it,” he said, noting his own Spanish roots.

“The fact that this is a positive event, we all need this,” Canto added.

To be sure, similar sentiments were expressed after the famed French team known as “Black-Blanc-Beur” — black-white-North African — won the 1998 World Cup. Four years later, though, the far-right National Front party made it into the presidential runoff, shocking France, and days of rioting shook the majority-immigrant suburbs of Paris in 2005.

Still, the social fabric of France has changed since then and this national team is even more clearly dominated by children of immigrants.

French television covered the team’s every move Monday, from its ride to an airport in Moscow to its disembarkation in Paris. Weary shopkeepers on the Champs-Élysées were still cleaning up from the previous night’s celebrations and looting — 292 arrests were made across France — even as the boulevard filled again for the team’s triumphal bus ride to the Élysée Palace. Black teenagers in tank tops from the suburbs stood shoulder-to-shoulder with whites from the city in polo shirts.

France has now been through a rough few years. And on Monday there was a fresh reminder of the specter of terrorism that hovers in the background: The country expelled Djamel Beghal, who as a godfather of the January 2015 attack on the Paris office of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is perhaps France’s most feared prisoner. Even as crowds were lining up on the Champs-Élysées to welcome home the Bleus, as the soccer team is known, Beghal was released from a Brittany prison after serving 17 years and immediately put onto a plane for his native Algeria. Beghal has been widely described as the prison mentor of the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket.

Those killings, and the subsequent attacks of 2015 and 2016, did more than sow fear: They also tore at the country’s fragile social fabric.

The integration of minorities, halting at the best of times — unemployment among immigrants in France is higher than the national average — was set back. Affirmative action is shunned.

France, a country that more or less welcomed the immigrant parents of Sunday’s stars, has become deeply ambiguous about welcoming any more.

“You guys really worked up a sweat out there,” President Emmanuel Macron told the players in their Moscow locker room after their win. “You were proud of your country, and you’ve lifted the whole country up!” On Monday he was set to welcome the team at the Élysée Palace.

But Macron as much as anyone is associated with a new tough line on immigrants, refusing boatloads of African migrants in the Mediterranean and pushing back stragglers across the Italian frontier. That hard line has won him points on the right, even if it has cost him support in his own political movement. Yet Macron is acutely aware of the wind in the sails of populist parties across Europe, and he knows that the same could happen in France.

The anti-immigrant Rassemblement National party — until recently known as the National Front — of Marine Le Pen continues to nip at Macron’s heels, polling just behind the president’s party in next year’s European Parliament elections. Le Pen also scored 33 percent against Macron in last year’s presidential runoff vote.

Amid Monday’s euphoria were reminders that her continual warnings about “migratory submersion” have not been forgotten.

“It seems that France has won the World Cup. Maybe. No doubt. But which France?” far-right writer Renaud Camus, a prominent supporter of Le Pen, wrote in a news release.

Was it “the New France, multicultural and multiethnic, the France of the ‘Great Replacement,’ France replaced, colonized, conquered, invaded?” Camus asked. “The team’s composition reflects only one thing,” he wrote. “Ethnic substitution.”

Will Sunday’s victory put a damper on sentiments like that? The French news media has highlighted the fact that delirious celebrations were taking place all over, from small villages to big cities, and not just in places with big immigrant populations.

“This was a victory against all those everywhere who are incapable of seeing that with the children of immigration of all origins, one can make compatriots, and fellow citizens of talent,” Weil said. “Since France became a country of immigration” in the 19th century, “immigration has brought much to France.”

Copyright 2022 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.