In declarations yesterday to the Spanish football newspaper Marca, Real Madrid footballer, Karim Benzema, said that the French national team coach, Didier Deschamps, caved into political pressure from racist portions of French society to exclude him from the team at the European Soccer Championship taking place this month in France. As you can imagine, the French political class has been quick to condemn his statements.
But is Benzema wrong? The president of the French Football Association (FFA), Noël Le Graët, has just responded saying that Benzema’s comments were “unjustifiable and inappropriate”, and Thierry Braillard, the French Secretary of State for Sports, says there is no racism in the FFA. But Benzema never said the FFA or Deschamps were racist. He said that the political pressure to make the decision had racist origins, and that is very hard to deny.
The controversy stems from a formal investigation earlier this year into whether Benzema had aided in a scheme to blackmail fellow footballer Valbuena in relation to a sex-tape. Benzema was never formally charged, let alone found guilty. The most damaging evidence against Benzema were telephone recordings with his ex-convict friend (all leaked to the press) making fun of Valbuena and his predicament.
Nonetheless, as a result of the Valbuena affair, Deschamps made the decision (together with AFF president, Noël Le Graët) to exclude Benzema from the national team and this summer’s European tournament, citing team unity and cohesiveness as the reason. France’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls was adamant in his public statements that Benzema should be barred from the team. It should be noted that Benzema is currently France’s most talented player and just came off his best year at Real Madrid.
So was Deschamps acting under pressure relating to the current political landscape in France? That there has been political pressure is undeniable.
Let’s look at the facts, but first a short disclaimer: I am a huge Benzema fan. It should also be noted that even though my wife and children are French citizens and I have spent a lot of time in France, I don’t pretend to be an expert on or belong to French culture, society or politics.
Why was Prime Ministerv Valls so active in publicly advocating for Benzema to be kept off the French national team? And why did he do so using the language of the French ultra-right wing nationalists, claiming that Benzema had failed to demonstrate that he represented French values?
Put into the context of the recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium, perpetrated by French and Belgium citizens of North African descent, and with growing electoral support for Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right wing nationalist party and lots of talk about “them” not sharing “our values”, it’s hard not to make the obvious connection to Mr. Valls’ political agenda.
And this gets us to the current socio-political debate running through Europe about whether Muslims and other people of non-European descent share the same local values. Unfortunately, no one in Europe is able to say exactly what those “values” are. So, if Mr. Valls (an immigrant himself and an FC Barcelona fan with its own controversy) continues to say that Benzema does not represent French values, I’d like to know what those values are. For example, Mr. Valls’ Socialist Party has had its share of corruption scandals, so does the French Socialist Party represent French values? How about its president Mr. Hollande, with his own numerous personal scandals? Are those representative of French values? What does an immigrant or the child of immigrants need to do to have French values? Multiple divorces, wives, mistresses?
Ever since France’s 1998 World Cup victory with its blue, black, white and Arab team, the French right has consistently criticized both the non-white players for not singing La Marseillaise and the French Football Association for not fielding enough white French players. But doesn’t La Marseillaise celebrate the gruesome and bloody revolution where French citizens were executed ISIS style? So what does La Marseillaise or France’s bloody colonial history tell us about French values?
Furthermore, when asked about the decision to bar Benzema, Le Graët said, “Did you see Griezmann play last night” in reference to the excellent form of France’s other top forward. This has been the general sentiment of most of the French people I have spoken to about the matter: we don’t need Benzema if we have Griezmann. And this is the undertone: if France can field white players, it wouldn’t need any of these black or Arab troublemakers on the team. And while that may not have been Le Graët’s intention, I think that is how the French left-wing bourgeois views football: an immigrant sport that doesn’t represent the high values of our precious rugby.
So let’s just take another quick look at the facts. Benzema has not been charged and will never be convicted of a crime relating to the Valbuena sex-tape. During a time of heightened ultra-right wing and anti-Arab sentiment in France, the Socialist French Prime Minister uses the “French values” argument to actively campaign against Benzema playing for the French national football team which has always been the focal point of ultra-right wing criticism. Then the AFF president says why talk about Benzema when we have Griezmann, a good looking white player. Valls clearly made this a political issue. Unless Deschamps can demonstrate that the other players aren’t comfortable with Benzema on the squad, it is hard to argue that Deschamps’ decision was not influenced by the current political climate.
A totally separate question is whether Benzema should have stayed quiet and not risked the additional controversy (and his future place on the team) by speaking his mind.
On a final note, the press regularly points to Benzema’s origins — the child of Algerian immigrants, the slums where he grew up in Lyon and his entourage — as the root of his off the field exploits (traffic violations, minor car accidents, etc). But let’s be serious. Do more poor kids crash expensive automobiles, like rap music or have questionable friends than rich kids? Back when Beckham joined Real Madrid, a friend of mine was traveling with the team on its Asian tour. That was a multi-cultural, -national and -racial team with the likes of Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Michel Salgado, Raul, Casillas and Beckham. When I asked my friend what the players were like, he said like any other 25-26 year old, with the exception that they were all millionaires. So I am not quite sure what ghosts Benzema has from his past, but I sure remember from growing up in the wealthy suburbs of Washington, DC, that a rich kid was much more likely to get into trouble than a poor one, but much less likely to actually got into “trouble” for doing any of it. Look at the kids of any Hollywood actor, and you know exactly what I mean.
Interesting that no one is suggesting that Messi or Mascherano should be barred from playing for Argentina or even FC Barcelona due to their own legal troubles (the first one under investigation for tax evasion and the other found guilty of the same crime). If committing fraud against the state is not contrary to a nation’s or Barcelona’s values, then what is? Would be nice to know Mr. Valls’ opinion on Messi.
Finally, my point here is that Mr. Valls made the matter into a political issue about French values, and now it is hard to divorce the politics from the final decision of the French national coach, Deschamps. The response from Marion Le Pen only confirms that there is a racist element in the surrounding politics. Deschamps is right to not respond further; Karim would have been better off to have stayed quiet in the first place.
Marion Le Pen has said that if Benzema doesn’t like the situation he should go play for Algeria. Benzema has never said he didn’t want to play for France. Rather his entire complaint is that he is being denied the ability to play for his team because he is being treated as a foreigner. So if politicians, like Mr. Valls, have made this political, then why doesn’t Benzema have the right to respond to the politics of the issue? Or is only Ms. Le Pen allowed to complain about France and its politics? And isn’t this double standard the ultimate expression of nativist racism everywhere? Surely we see it all the time in the U.S. If you are white, you can complain about the government and the law all you want. But if you are a minority and you complain, you are immediately told “if you don’t like it, move back to” Mexico, Algeria, etc. So if Ms. Le Pen doesn’t like multi-ethnic France, then why doesn’t she stop complaining and move somewhere else?