Why the National Front Rooted Against France

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Les Blechs
By Hua Hsu

It's going to be quiet in these parts today: I have to move, one among us is taking a massive exam, it's dangerously hot outside, etc, etc. Unless you're Raymond Domenech—whose mother just weighed in on the French squad's troubles—we'll trust that you can successfully find amusing YouTube clips on your own.

In all seriousness: despite our amusement at France's troubles, it is a real shame that they have bowed out, and in such spectacularly pathetic fashion at that. They were a talented yet almost predictably petulant side; they had some of the best and, in Franck Ribery and Djibril Cisse, most unusual-looking players on the planet. And for fans of underdogs: who enjoyed less global support than the French, who needed that handball to qualify in the first place? At least the North Koreans possessed a certain Je ne sais quoi (literally—we knew nothing about them).

Sadly, their World Cup disappointment has occasioned the most nefarious kind of pulse-taking among French cultural observers. Les Bleus' poor showing has been blamed on immigration, the inclusion of too many black players, a banlieue defiance that runs counter to traditional values. They came to embody the "new" and more diverse France first glimpsed in 1998. Their refusal to play for the universally scorned Domenech—now, suddenly, a victim?—has come to stand-in for a society of despised "bling-bling traders" adrift from fraternite. It's a re-staging of the infamous war-of-words between then-Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy and outspoken French defender Lilian Thuram after Sarkozy dismissed Parisian banlieue rioters as "scum"—only Thuram was a winner. (One of the best interviews I've ever read with Thuram was in the great but sadly hard to find South African magazine Chimurenga, whose World Cup "Pilgrimages" site is beyond excellent.)

There are cranks everywhere, and hopefully those among the French who wish for a return to the less-uppity French squads of years past will remain in the minority. It's a dangerous, easily deployed nostalgia, this fiction of an idyllic, equal-opportunity past that shames us in the present. But it's inevitable, as the world strays from our idealisms. Laurent DuBois' "Politics of Football" blog has been forceful and insightful in reporting on some of these cultural tensions. (For more on French cultural tensions and football, check out his book, Soccer Empire.)

References to Sartre notwithstanding, this kind of thing might sound familiar to anyone who has heard overpaid, spoiled athletes in the American professional ranks lambasted in the name of this elusive quality, How the Game is Supposed To Be Played. (Extra familiar to those who followed the Red Sox during the Manny-Being-Manny Years...) Style of play becomes ethical, a reflection of values, and winning—ostensibly the thing supporters most desperately crave—gets overlooked. The team that wins is the one we want; the one that falls short becomes a surface upon which we map the world we would prefer to live in, draft the rules we would choose to have everyone follow.


Elsewhere on this blog: I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, the vuvuzela-as-zeitgeist and the North Korean national squad. Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa and R. Kelly's allegiances, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case. Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football. On the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, Anmol meditated on Mandela and the lines marked "out-of-bounds" by FIFA. Pete, on a quest for "authenticity," reported from up in the air. Bethelem Shoals dissected American rooting politics. This week, I discussed boredom and webcams, and what it means to have "heart."



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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
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