Thirteen years ago, he captained his nation to its first ever World Cup championship in what was then hailed as a testament to the possibilities of French multiculturalism. Now as manager, Laurent Blanc has placed himself at the center of a firestorm over familiar French preoccupations of race, immigration and national identity.
Controversy struck last week when the investigative website Mediapart revealed that Blanc participated in a series of French Football Federation (FFF) discussions aimed at limiting the number of black and Arab players of in French youth academies via quotas. According to Mediapart, FFF technical director Francois Blaquart proposed secretly capping the number of black and Arab trainees at regional training centers at 30 percent.
One reason for the proposal was to limit the number of binational players in the French development pool, who could then go on to play for other national teams. But Mediapart’s transcript of a secretly-recorded meeting last November shows that Blanc’s concerns ran far deeper. Blanc allegedly complained that France’s abundance of black players had rendered French soccer more physical and less technical to the detriment of the national team.
“You have the feeling that we are producing really only one prototype of player: big, strong, fast … and who are the big, strong, fast players? The blacks. That’s the way it is. That’s the way things are today.” He suggested that current World Cup holders Spain don’t have such problems “because they don’t have any blacks.”
Blanc initially pled ignorance. He’s since issued an apology of sorts, saying in a statement, “I admit some remarks made during a work meeting, taken out of their context, may be misinterpreted. As far as I am concerned, I apologize if I have hurt some feelings. But I, who am against any form of discrimination, do not accept being accused of racism or xenophobia.”
The FFF has launched an investigation into the matter. Blanc and three other staff members involved in the conversations are expected to appear before a special commission this week.
The controversy has split France’s sporting and political elite, including the members of the 1998 side, largely along racial lines. Midfielder Patrick Vieira told Le Monde, “It’s outrageous. These are serious remarks.” Retired defender Lilian Thuram told French TV, “Of course you feel hurt…You tell yourself that it’s a perpetual [cycle] to always cast doubt on people with regards to their color and religion.”
Blanc’s defenders, including Vieira and Thuram’s 1998 teammate Christophe Duggary, rushed to Blanc’s defense. “What annoys me about Lilian Thuram’s behavior, especially when I see him go up against Laurent Blanc in such a manner, is the way he wants to pass himself off as the judge of the Supreme Court,” Dugarry said to Infosport.
Duggary then upped the ante significantly, relating a story from the moments after France’s victory in the final over Brazil. “And then I hear Lilian Thuram — and I’m not the only one, Franck Leboeuf [heard it]as well — say: ‘Come on, let’s get a photo with all the blacks. And Franck Leboeuf gets up and says to him: ‘Lilian, what are you saying now? Imagine if we’d said, ‘Come on, let’s get a photo with all the whites.’ How would you have reacted?’
France’s most famous soccer player, retired icon Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants, also defended Blanc after more than a week’s silence. Insisting that Blanc is no racist, Zidane explained, “Lolo [Blanc] is someone spontaneous, who talks openly and who doesn’t think for a second that his words could be misinterpreted.”
Leading French politicians have also weighed in. Sports minister Chantal Jouanno said, “Today, I have no reason to say that Laurent Blanc should be accused. Let us keep our head on our shoulders. I have never heard him say racist things and I have never seen him do things that makes one think he is [racist].” And according to Ouest-France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to call Blanc to ask him to reconsider his reported decision to step down over the row.
This is but the latest in a series of race-based controversies to come out of French soccer in the last year. After France’s first-round exit from last summer’s World Cup—and disgraceful behavior off the field—the French right instantly offered up its diagnosis. Marine Le Pen, who recently succeeded her father as head of France’s ultra-right National Front Party explained, ”Most of these guys consider at one moment that they represent France at the World Cup, and at another they are a part of another nation or have another nationality in their heart.” She added, “I don’t see myself represented by this France team. Maybe things would change if they didn’t wrap themselves in the flags of other countries.”
Le Pen, who according to recent polls would beat Sarkozy in next year’s presidential race, reflects a rightward shift in French politics that has transformed the ultra-right from marginalized extremists to viable players, and while it’s difficult to gauge to what extent reaction to the most recent controversy reflects this trend, it’s impossible not to view it in that context. The invocations of the “black-blanc-beur” of 1998 as symbols of the new France were always more myth than reality. Yet today, one is hard-pressed to find even feel-good myths amid France’s desolate racial landscape. Soccer used to provide them. Not anymore.