Africa won the World Cup

Africa won the World Cup
Comment: Until France treats its migrants, Muslims and people of colour as equals, they have every right to call this victory their own, writes Malia Bouattia.
6 min read
20 Jul, 2018
Around two thirds of France's national team are of African or Arab descent [AFP]
There was a running joke this World cup - at least once Morocco, Egypt, Senegal and Nigeria were knocked out - that the last remaining African team was in fact France, given that 15 of the team's 23 players are of African descent.

The South African comedian and host of the Daily show, Trevor Noah, repeated the joke on screen following the French team's victory over Croatia in the final, stating "Africa won the World Cup," and "Basically if you don't understand, France is Africans' backup team. Once Senegal and Nigeria got knocked out, that's who we root for."

Noah subsequently faced attacks for his comments, with many taking to social media accusing him of regurgitating the racism that minority groups face from the far-right in France.

French Comedian
Kevin Razy for example, was among those criticising the host, informing him that, "This is what racists say about our team here in France".

Given France's relationship with people of colour - and particularly those originating from its former colonies, it is understandable that some were angered.

The assimilationist French tradition, practiced since the country's imperialist endeavours during the 19th and 20th centuries, explained away African culture and identity as barbaric, and justified the exploitation of Africans as part of a process of 'civilizing' them.

Given that the end of that process would have meant those Africans would become French, and therefore equal to white people in every way, the mission civilisatrice never fully came into fruition.

When the Black, migrant, Muslim populations of France win the World Cup they are French, despite it

Indeed, although colonial subjects were taught at school to see the Gaels as their ancestors, they were never awarded equal rights, equal access to resources, or equal representation by the state. Today, the right to Frenchness and to the freedoms that status should bestow upon individuals continues to be a battleground for many global South communities living in France, explaining why Noah's comments hit a nerve.

Still, I not only stand by Noah's comments, but I have and will continue to repeat them.

Whether chatting to a South-African uncle at the local supermarket, or with a Moroccan sister on the train, I will proudly talk of the success of African players at the World Cup 2018. Mostly, because it relates to my experiences with race, racism, and xenophobia; experiences that I share with many others.

In the same way that those of African descent in France have fought to claim their rights within the country, I too fight to preserve my Africaness and my right to identify as such, without a barrage of abuse or discrimination.

Given the West's attempts to erase indigenous African culture and knowledge, the whitewashing of history in order to maintain superiority, and the wholesale theft of resources from the continent, claiming the win as African is a personal - if symbolic - act of resistance.

The players succeeded in the World Cup against a backdrop of racism, fascism and xenophobia from the very country they were representing.

As long as France refuses to bestow on all its citizens its much celebrated equality, fraternity and liberty, there is no reason for it to be allowed to claim the successes and victories of those who manage to achieve great things, in the face of state racism.

Similarly, following Muslim American writer and activist Khaled Beydoun's tweet calling on France to provide justice to Migrants, Muslims and People of Colour following the World Cup win, he was accused by Nicolas Sarkozy's son, Louis, of making "racist assumptions based on their skin color".

This 'colourblindness' approach, which is a product of the laws and practices of France's secular institutions, is often used to derail debates and move the focus away from the violence and hatred that racialised people exclusively experience in France.

The racist here, apparently, is the person calling out the double standards and second-class status reserved for those who look like a considerable portion of the French national team.

The images of Macron celebrating alongside the victorious players left a bitter taste in the mouths of many

Censuses carried out by the state and companies in France apply this same logic, making it illegal to record people's race or ethnic background.

Under the cover of avoiding racial profiling, this approach in fact makes it near impossible to record structural and systematic discrimination accurately in the Republic.

Similarly, the claim that France's team represents a unified and homogenous French identity to be celebrated by all, does not mean that we should forget that Black, Migrant, Muslim, and other communities of colour in France are still not afforded equal rights by the state.

As thousands across France took to the streets to celebrate, many gathered around Paris' major landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and L'Arc de Triomphe. 

But authorities 
announced that from 6pm on the day of the final, buses connecting the capital to the banlieues would no longer be running, following a decision by the police.

To migrants, Muslims and people of colour from the poorer suburbs of Paris, it was a clear message from the Republic that they were yet again, not welcome.

Despite the winning players also being 'banlieusards', the fact these people are neither white nor wealthy apparently means that they are not really French, and therefore excluded from enjoying national victories.

This insult from the state served as a powerful symbolic illustration of their place in the Republic: They can work, achieve, and enrich France - both figuratively and literally - but enjoying the fruits of their labour will remain just out of reach.

I remember going to the Champs Elysee when France won the European Cup, two years following their victory in the 1998 World Cup and the streets were a sea of Algerian flags.

I have no doubt that following 1998's deeply Islamophobic presidential election, and a national climate of rising racism, this image was not one that the state wanted to see repeated.

Indeed, since then, France has seen the rapid rise of the Front National, which has made it to the second round of the presidential elections twice in just over a decade.

The response by the mainstream political parties has been to run after the racist and populist FN vote by targeting migrants, Muslims, and the Roma among others.

Macron himself as well as his cabinet, despite their liberal image, have repeatedly increased state repression against migrants

Macron himself as well as his cabinet, despite their liberal image, have repeatedly increased state repression against migrants and ramped up the climate of Islamophobia in the country.

The images of him celebrating alongside the victorious players therefore left a bitter taste in the mouths of many.  

In that moment, I was reminded of the words of Frantz Fanon, in 'Black Skins, White Masks', in which he writes:

"When people like me, they like me "in spite of my colour." When they dislike me; they point out that it isn't because of my colour. Either way, I am locked in to the infernal circle."

When the Black, migrant, Muslim populations of France win the World Cup they are French, despite it.

When they work, organise, or engage in society, they are rejected and their oppression is denied. As long as this infernal cycle continues, we will continue to celebrate the victory of the Cup's last African team standing.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.