User Menu

Ken Early: France and its many faces

‘The mascot for Euro 2016... Would a cockerel have been totally out of the question? ‘

Chateau d’If: etc photograph: Getty

If you’re spending your morning walking from the old port of Marseille south along the sea, you know you’re probably having a good day. The waves gleam, the breeze blows and the only cloud in the sky is your slightly crestfallen realisation as a north European that it’s all true – life really is better in the places where the sun shines.

The smell of fish from the market on Quai des Belges fades as you walk towards the mouth of the harbour, loomed over by the twin stone forts of Saint-Jean and Saint-Nicolas, built by Louis XIV to guard the approaches to France’s imperial port.

Just off the coast you can see the little islands of Frioul, where a squat castle glares out from its rock. This is the Chateau d’If, the original stone guardian of the port, which was converted into the prison where the Count of Monte Cristo did his (fictional) time. The proliferation of fortresses reminds you that while life in Marseille is good, it hasn’t always been peaceful.

About a mile south along the seafront you come to the little cove of Vallon des Auffes where there is a small plaza jutting into the sea and an archway surrounded by heroic statues. It’s the Porte de l’Orient – a monument dedicated “to the armies of Africa”. The many French armies, that is.

The monument was aflutter with tricolours and bedecked with wreaths for a veterans’ memorial event. Ancient military men in uniforms clinking with medals hobbled forth carrying standards bearing the name of the Union National des Combattants. The UNC is a French veterans’ organisation that rose to prominence as a force for the Right during the political upheavals of the 1930s.

Fascist street violence

The UNC doesn’t do fascist street violence any more, restricting itself to campaigning for veterans’ rights and issuing occasional patriotic communiqués. One such release paid tribute to the heroism of the Harki auxiliaries who fought alongside the French army in the Algerian war – a sentiment which would not be echoed by every member of Marseille’s large North African population.

On Wednesday the old men had come to commemorate the brave soldiers of France who had given their lives to keep Indochina French. Their brothers in arms had been among the last of the generations to die for a particular idea of France – an imperial project in which France sent out men to occupy distant corners of the world and transform those places into homes from home. As a direct result of the centuries France spent trying to convert great swathes of the rest of the world into extra pieces of France, the French now have Europe’s most diverse international football team.

Of the 23 players in their squad for Euro 2016, 15 can trace their ancestry to countries outside of metropolitan France.

These players, or their forebears, have come from countries all over the former empire – including some that are still part of France.

It’s ironic that many of the patriots who still think it was a noble idea for France to Frenchify all those countries are the same ones who say a team like this cannot truly represent France.

Eighteen years ago, the French national team became the country’s most powerful symbol of multicultural fraternity when it won a home World Cup. Today the team is again the focus of a national debate over race.

Eric Cantona accused the France coach Didier Deschamps of not selecting Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa, two of France’s most gifted footballers, because they were of North African ancestry.

Deschamps announced through his lawyers that he would sue Cantona, but that was before Benzema himself repeated the claims, suggesting that Deschamps had “bowed to pressure from a racist part of France”.

The controversy came as a surprise to observers outside France, who had assumed that Benzema had been dropped because of his involvement in a plot to blackmail another national team player, Mathieu Valbuena, over a sex tape which had come into the possession of some associates of Benzema.

Cantona’s argument was that Benzema seemed to be held to higher standards of conduct then some other people in French public life. That his interpretation of the situation can gain any traction tells you something about the place France is in today.

Charlie Hebdo this week mocks the controversy with a cover announcing “Deschamps, Racist! He hasn’t picked Mohamed [sic] Ali for Euro 2016”. The accompanying cartoon shows a coffin with the arms and legs of a boxer running across a football pitch.

The joke presumably means to satirise the atmosphere of racially charged hysteria, but it also crudely dismisses the idea that there could be any real basis to the claims advanced by Cantona and Benzema, without showing any workings.

France is the country of egalité and fraternité, to the extent that the government is banned by law from collecting information about citizens’ ethnicity and race. Yet the official colour blindness is not always reflected in the little details of life. Look at the mascot for Euro 2016: a little white boy called Super Victor. Would a cockerel have been totally out of the question?

Glory-seeking militarism

It’s plain that the French can’t agree on what France really is. Is it the rationalist ideals of the Revolution? The glory-seeking militarism of the Empire? The romanticism of Victor Hugo? The apathy of Houellebecq? The say-what-you-feel spontaneity of Cantona? The weigh-every-word establishment pragmatism of Deschamps?

To walk around Marseille, a city a thousand years older than France, is to be reminded that France has been all of these things and tomorrow it will be something else. And as long as there are fish in the sea, they'll still be selling them on the Quai des Belges.