The Road to Glory: Obstacles to Integration

Integration, defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “the bringing into equal membership of a common society those groups or persons previously discriminated against on racial or cultural grounds” (OED). In terms of migration, it can also be defined as how well a migrant can become a part of the established culture and society of the host country. France, specifically, can be hard for migrants, given that the cultural and political emphasis on national solidarity, unity, and secularism can alienate first- and second-generation migrants, who might not represent “traditional” French culture. An example of this comes about in French laicité. Meant as separation of religion and cultural differences from the public space, laicité has been used to justify oppressive laws such as the banning of the veil for Muslim women in sports competitions in January just this year (Aziz).

Roadblocks to integration in sports become apparent in the context of national teams. Players can represent whatever nation in which they have citizenship. For many first- and second-generation migrants, the process of deciding which country to play for entails having to decide between the country in which they have grown up or the country of their parents or ancestors. As shown in the research done by Gijs van Campenhout and Jacco van Serkenburg, these player flows follow pre-existing migration flows. France has historically been the nation with the highest number of foreign-born players in World Cup teams with a total of 61, many of whom have come from former French colonies.

In recent years, there has also been a large flow of French-born soccer players choosing to play for other countries, most of which are also former French colonies such as Tunisia and Algeria. In the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, Algeria had 16 and 17 French-born players on each respective team. A total of 114 French-born soccer players have represented different countries in the World Cup. While players may decide to play for the French national team, nationalist sentiment stemming from the strong sense of national identity may lead to typical roadblocks to integration being made even larger for migrant athletes. 

Gilles Lipovitsky, a sociologist, describes the surge of nationalist sentiment surrounding sporting events as “le nationalisme festif”, or festive nationalism (Ozkanal). Nationalist sentiment remains at a high level while the team is doing well. In Diome’s Le ventre de l’Atlantique, Madicke’s decision to remain in Senegal instead of leaving for France comes after Senegal’s win over Les Bleus, the French national team, in the 2002 World Cup, further instilling pride in his home country. However, once the representative team begins to fail, sentiment toward those on the team and the event begins to change.

While the current national soccer team has been successful, with a large majority of players either coming from migrant backgrounds or migrating themselves, the discourse around players with dual nationality has not always been seen as a positive by the French media and culture. During the period between 1998 and 2018 in which the French team was struggling, politicians from the far-right like Marine le Pen argued that the problem with the team was that they “had another nationality at heart”, and questioned whether immigrants could represent the national team (Downing). Empirically, this kind of statement does not hold, with a 2012 survey done by the INED finding that 85% of those with dual nationality felt they belonged to France (INED). 

This, however, does not stop attempts to try and prevent having “too many migrants” on the team. In 2011, talks from the French Football Federation regarding possible quotas for the number of players of multi-nationality being allowed in French academies were leaked to the public. The criteria would be “modified for our own culture”, according to Laurent Blanc, the manager for Les Bleus at the time (Mediapart). A clear attempt at making the barrier for entry even harder for first and second-generation migrant players, we can see how nationalist sentiment, brought up by Gilles-Lipovetsky, can leak into the sports world. At the time of Le Pen’s comments in 2010, the captain of Les Bleus was Senegal-born Patrice Evra. Other star players included Djibril Cissé, Nicolas Anelka, and Alou Diarra, who had Ivorian, Martiniquais, and Malian descent respectively. It was these players who were criticized the most by the media. National teams became a standard for a country’s beliefs and a symbol for a country’s population, which can make integration even more difficult for migrant athletes who become heavily criticized as a result of the spotlight on them. 

On the other hand, after Les Bleus’ 2018 World Cup win, with a squad mostly made of first and second-generation migrants, led by Kylian Mbappe, the national team has become a symbol of French diversity. From the 23-man squad, France took to the World Cup in 2018, 19 had a ‘genuine connection’ to another country with Samuel Umtiti and Steve Mandanda being born outside of the country, and 7 of the players on the squad being Muslim (Van Campenhout). This contrasts the rising anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia in France, encapsulated by Marine Le Pen’s strong presidential bids in the last two elections. This shows just how fickle the sports world can be, with the ability to elevate some to the top while others become a greater target of racial and religious prejudice from the host country. This dichotomy is perfectly encapsulated by Karim Benzema, a french-born striker with Algerian roots, who said in 2011, “If I score I’m French, If I don’t score or there are problems, I’m Arab” (20 Minutes).

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