France, racial politics and why ‘the Mbappe effect’ is shaping a bitter election

The morning after France’s opening game of Euro 2024, the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) published its latest poll ahead of the country’s legislative election.

The top line was that the seemingly unstoppable momentum behind the far-right National Rally Party (RN), bidding to form a government for the first time, seemed to have slowed – dropping from 35 per cent support a week earlier to 33 per cent. The New Popular Front, a coalition of left-wing parties, and President Macron’s centrist Renaissance party had both begun to close the gap.

Such fluctuations are normal during the course of an election campaign, particularly in a country whose political landscape changes as rapidly as that in France, but there was another finding that caught the eye.

IFOP reported a significant shift away from the RN among those between the ages of 18 and 34 (from 31 per cent to 27 per cent). They also reported that 57 per cent of 18-to-35-year-olds intended to vote in the first round — in contrast to the previous legislative elections in June 2022, when only 30 per cent of that age group did so.

Could this be the beginning of the Kylian Mbappe effect?

This was the first poll since the France forward issued a plea to the public to recognise that “the extremes are knocking on the doors of power”. He urged young people in particular to “make a difference” and to “shape our country’s future” in the two rounds of voting on June 30 and July 7.

At a news conference to preview that first Euro 2024 game against Austria, Mbappe said he was “against extremes, against divisive ideas” but also against political apathy.

“That’s why I’m trying to give a voice to these people of my generation,” he said, “because that’s what I was like when I was younger, thinking my voice isn’t going to change (anything).”

Mbappe’s team-mate Marcus Thuram, whose Guadeloupe-born father Lilian was one of the most influential players in the history of the France national team, went further by explicitly urging the public to reject the RN.

“It’s the sad reality of our society today,” he said in response to the RN’s position leading the polls. “We must tell everyone to go out and vote. We all need to fight daily so the National Rally does not succeed.”

Marcus Thuram has made clear his distaste for the National Rally (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

For a time, it seemed Mbappe’s and Thuram’s words could make a difference in mobilising younger voters, particularly those from ethnic minorities who are fearful of a far-right government. But any “Mbappe effect” might have been short-lived. New polls over the past couple of days suggest the RN has surged ahead again.

France are many observers’ favourites to win this European Championship, but the prospect of a far-right government assuming power at home has left many players on duty in Germany with a feeling of dread.

As Mbappe said: “I don’t want to represent a country that doesn’t correspond to my values, that doesn’t correspond to our values.”

When France won the World Cup in 1998, it was widely acclaimed as a triumph for multiculturalism. The team included players who had been born in the overseas territories (like Lilian Thuram in Guadeloupe and Christian Karembeu in New Caledonia); or in French-speaking countries in Africa (like Marcel Desailly in Ghana and Patrick Vieira in Senegal); or who were sons of immigrants (like Zinedine Zidane, whose parents arrived from Algeria in the 1950s, and Thierry Henry, whose parents were from Guadeloupe and Martinique); and others like Youri Djorkaeff and Robert Pires, whose heritage was Polish-Armenian and Spanish-Portuguese respectively.

The team was fondly referred to as being “black, blanc, beur” (black, white and Arab) in a riff on the “bleu, blanc, rouge” of the French flag. Jacques Chirac, the president at the time, congratulated a “tricolour and multi-colour team” on creating a “beautiful image of France and its humanity”.

France’s diverse 1998 World Cup winners, including (from left) Bernard Diomede, Lilian Thuram, Didier Deschamps and Thierry Henry (Daniel Garcia/AFP via Getty Images)

But not everyone was happy. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Front National (FN) party, which has since rebranded as the RN under the leadership of his daughter Marine, responded by downplaying this huge national celebration as “only a detail of history”. He had previously said it was “a bit artificial to bring players from abroad and call it the French team” and accused some of them of “not singing or not knowing La Marseillaise”, the national anthem.

The World Cup win was hailed in some quarters as a turning point for French society. But unity was short-lived.

In April 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen stood in the presidential election, putting anti-immigration measures at the centre of his manifesto. He secured 16.9 per cent of the vote in the first round, beating the Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin into third place and securing a spot alongside Chirac on the ballot form for the decisive second round.

In the build-up to the vote, Pires, then playing for Arsenal, warned that “if the extreme right were to win the election, I think more than several (France) players would refuse to take part in the World Cup. We are French, but the team’s roots are from everywhere”. Desailly said it was  “imperative to do everything possible to block (Le Pen’s) path to power”.

Chirac won the second round resoundingly, but Le Pen was now a significant player on the French political scene and continued his diatribes against the ethnic make-up of the national team. During the 2006 World Cup, he said that “France does not fully recognise itself in this team” and that their coach Raymond Domenech had “perhaps exaggerated the proportion of players of colour”.

Lilian Thuram, who made 142 appearances for France between 1994 and 2008, responded on that occasion by saying Le Pen was “clearly unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown”.

“If he’s got a problem with us, that’s down to him, but we are proud to represent this country,” Thuram added. “So Vive la France — but the true France, not the France that he (Le Pen) wants.”

On the tram from Dusseldorf central station to the Merkur-Spiel Arena last week, France’s supporters were in high spirits. At one point there was a stirring rendition of La Marseillaise. The whole carriage — other than a handful of Austria fans and a couple of journalists — joined in.

The supporters included Jean-Luc Rutil, 56, and his daughter, Loanne, 23, who had travelled from Paris.

“I personally agree with Mbappe,” Loanne said. “I think it’s right that football players don’t only stick to football. It’s great that they’re talking about politics because politics and the elections affect everybody. He is right to send out the message that it’s important to vote.”

Her father Jean-Luc was less convinced. “I feel the footballers should concentrate on football,” he said. “It’s fine to encourage people to vote, but not to issue directives. We talk about social problems, about racism, but we have been talking about these things since the dawn of time.”

Jean-Luc Rutil, 56, and his daughter, Loanne, 23 (Oliver Kay/The Athletic)

Jean-Luc has been following the France team for decades. He remembers being inspired by the European Championship-winning side of 1984, which included Marius Tresor and Jean Tigana, born in Guadeloupe and Mali respectively. By 1998 there was Thuram, Desailly, Vieira, Karembeu, Henry and Zidane and a team that — much to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s disapproval — reflected the multicultural nation France had become.

Loanne said the team of today feels representative of modern France: “All walks of life, all colours in our team.”

But does it feel representative of a nation which, according to the most recent polls, is likely to elect a far-right, anti-immigration party as its government?

“The French national team is probably about as popular as it has ever been,” says Tom Williams, author of Va-Va-Voom: The Modern History of French Football. “It’s been a great era – finalists at Euro 2016 on home soil, World Cup winners in 2018, World Cup finalists in 2022.

“But at the same time, we have seen the far right on the march and a notable rise in racism and racist abuse within French domestic football. There have been numerous incidents this season, including Nazi salutes, monkey chants. Bastia had a point deducted after a referee’s assistant was racially abused.

“When things go wrong, the cracks appear and far-right politicians try to make an issue of it. Every time French football has hit rock bottom since 1998, people have brought race into it.

“It has often been the non-white players who have been singled out. At Euro 2020, the only real disappointment during the recent era, the player who missed the fateful penalty against Switzerland (Mbappe) ended up being racially abused on social media — similar to the England players (Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka) who missed their penalties in the final against Italy. There is always that kind of undercurrent.”

The discourse around French politics, race and the national team has never gone away. Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known French essayist, wrote in 2005 that the “black, blanc, beur” team had been replaced by one that was “noir, noir, noir” (black, black, black) and that it attracts derision across Europe as a consequence.

In 2011, online newspaper Mediapart published transcripts of a meeting the previous year in which French Football Federation (FFF) officials, unaware they were being recorded, discussed the idea of limits on non-white youngsters entering the football academy system.

Laurent Blanc, who was then coach of the national team, was heard saying that at some academies “we really train the same prototype of players: big, strong, powerful. What are the big, strong, powerful things out there right now? Black people. God knows that in training centres, in football schools, there are a lot of them”. Blanc added that the FFF should refocus and find more young players “with our culture, our history, etc”.

An investigation led by the French sports ministry cleared Blanc of allegations of discrimination. Francois Blaquart was briefly suspended from his role as national technical director pending an investigation, but he too was cleared of any wrongdoing and stayed with the FFF for another six years.

Blanc, Blaquart and others felt their words had been taken out of context. Chantal Jouanno, the sports minister at the time, said the comments made by various FFF officials had been “clumsy and uncalled for”, but that there was no evidence to suggest they had backed discriminatory practices.

“It just sort of died down and went away, but it left a sour taste within French football,” says Williams. “It was a controversy that threatened to have much more significant ramifications than it did.”

Since Jean-Marie Le Pen stood down in 2011, the nationalist movement has continued to grow in support, first under the leadership of his daughter Marine and now under 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who has widened the RN’s appeal to a younger demographic.

Posters showing Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella ahead of the legislative elections (Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images)

Some of its messaging has been toned down, but the anti-immigration message persists. As do the tensions with the France national team.

Mbappe did not mention any party specifically — and appeared to be referring to the NFP coalition as well when he spoke of extremism — but his comments last week were met with anger from the RN.

Bardella told French TV station CNews: “When you’re lucky enough to have a very, very big salary, when you’re a multi-millionaire, then I’m a little embarrassed to see these athletes (…) give lessons to people who can’t make ends meet, who don’t feel safe, who don’t have the chance to live in neighbourhoods protected by security agents.”

There was a similar message from one of the RN’s vice presidents, Sebastien Chenu, who said the French public didn’t want to be “lectured” or “told how to vote” by people “who are disconnected from reality” and “very far removed from their daily concerns”.

But Mbappe’s origin story is far from privileged. He grew up in the banlieue, the vast urban suburban sprawl beyond the centre of Paris. So did many of his team-mates. To suggest they cannot relate to “people who can’t make ends meet” — and vice-versa — seemed like a convenient put-down, but not an accurate one.

Kylian Mbappe, aged 12, talking to French television about racism in football in Bondy in 2011 (Florian Plaucheur and Mehdi Lebouachera/AFP via Getty Images)

“The fact that they’re millionaires or multi-millionaires is irrelevant,” says Philippe Marliere, professor of French politics at University College London. “Mbappe comes from Bondy, which is on the outskirts of Paris but has a completely different landscape to the affluent city. There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment.”

Bondy is part of Seine-Saint-Denis, the French ‘department’ with the highest proportion of immigrants and the highest poverty rate, with 28.6 per cent of its 50,000-plus residents living below the poverty line according to INSEE (France’s national institute of statistics and economic studies).

“Mbappe’s father is originally from Cameroon and his mother’s family are from Algeria. They are known as very hard-working, law-abiding citizens who are heavily involved in their local community,” Marliere says. “Mbappe appears to share their values and it’s a positive thing when someone achieves great success and they remain true to the values they were raised with.”



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Could this kind of intervention make a difference? “In terms of the outcome, it is harder to say, but it could certainly have an impact because of Mbappe’s status as a national icon,” Marliere says.

“This is a crucial and potentially historic election, in which France could elect a far-right government. This could mobilise younger voters who weren’t previously thinking of voting.”

In the days that followed Mbappe’s and Thuram’s comments, Arsenal defender William Saliba, also from Bondy, suggested the France squad might issue a collective statement. Nearly a week later, it has not materialised.

“We’ve talked about the press release and the subject will come up again,” Real Madrid midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni said at the France training camp in Paderborn on Sunday. “I can’t say we all have the same view of things. I don’t know.

“Everyone in the group is entitled to their opinion. We’ve had strong messages via Marcus and Kylian and I share their point of view. I hate extremes in everyday life. I’m more for a policy of unity.”

The FFF outlined its own position within hours of Thuram’s statement on June 15. It said it is “deeply attached to freedom of expression and citizenship” and “supports the call to go out and vote”, but that it — and the national team — must remain politically neutral. “In this respect,” it said, “any form of pressure and political use of the French team must be avoided.”

But it seems inevitable that the national team will be “used” politically one way or the other. While Jean-Marie Le Pen used to take pot-shots to score political points, Macron has flaunted his affection for the national team and, over recent years, his relationship with Mbappe.

Despite being a Marseille supporter, Macron took credit for helping persuade Mbappe to extend his contract at Paris Saint-Germain in 2022. Mbappe confirmed that the president “strongly advised me to continue in my country”.

Mbappe has attended dinners at the Elysee Palace, including earlier this year for a visit by the Emir of Qatar given PSG’s links to the Qatari state. Macron and sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera visited the team’s training base in Clairefontaine on June 3 before the departure for Germany, standing either side of Mbappe during a photoshoot.

French president Emmanuel Macron with Kylian Mbappe before the squad’s departure to Germany (Sarah Meyssonnier/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Marliere is keen to point out that Mbappe’s statements, in condemning “extremes” (plural), “appear to put him down as a Macronite” rather than someone campaigning for the left-wing coalition.

“But it was still quite a bold and controversial statement,” Marliere says. “The players are celebrated and liked by the French public, particularly when the national team wins. But if they start making their way into political discussions, there is a risk that some will object to that. They will be aware of that risk, which is why I admire the boldness of the statements.”

The stakes are high. This legislative election has been described by finance minister Bruno Le Maire as being potentially France’s most significant since the formation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. While the National Rally is expected to win the most votes in the first round on June 30, the outcome of the second round on July 7 is harder to predict.

It raises all kinds of possibilities: France’s players looking to the stands during a Euros semi-final in Munich or Dortmund and seeing Bardella looking down on them as prime minister; France’s players returning to Paris as European champions on July 15 to be greeted by the leader of a new far-right government that several of them have already denounced.

“I hope we will make the right choice and I hope we will still be proud to wear this jersey on July 7,” Mbappe said.

Mbappe is a patriot, often ending his news conferences or speeches in pre-match huddles with the words “Vive la France”. But his comments over recent weeks suggest that pride would be tested by the election of a far-right government.

In France – and in the French enclave that has been established in Paderborn over the past fortnight – tensions are running high.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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