By Harrison Stetler
The World Cup prospects for France’s national football team look dim. FIFA, in fact, has ranked France in the mid- to high-teens among other national squads (a low ranking compared to France’s recent history as a top contender.) Though the possibility of a French World Cup win remains unlikely, the ethnically and racially diverse team is testimony to a progressive European Union and a France committed to that union. Exemplifying France’s multicultural national identity, the team stands as a much-needed counterpoint to the divisiveness that has come to define not only French politics, but the recent reactionary contingent set to arrive in the European Parliament.
The French National Front—the party of the quasi-fascist, extreme right headed by Marine Le Pen—recently received the plurality of votes in France’s May 2014 European parliamentary elections. Their success foreshadows a French retreat from its traditionally central role in continental integration. In contrast, France’s diverse soccer team serves as a reminder of a unified, culturally varied French identity, which has long stood at the vanguard of the European project.
The French National Football team has long boasted an ethnically diverse squad. For better or for worse, this has not gone unnoticed by many in France and throughout the soccer world. In 2006, in the run-up to France’s ill-fated World Cup bid in which ‘les bleus’ (as the French team is referred to) came in second place behind the victorious Italians, the diversity of the French squad provoked sharp criticism from opposing teams as well as many conservative voices in French society. As The Washington Post then reported, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen and the founder of the now rapidly advancing National Front, said, “Perhaps the coach went overboard on the proportion of colored players.”
Among this year’s team are numerous players who are either themselves immigrants or are first and second generation Frenchmen of Angolan, Senegalese, Polish, and Vietnamese descent, to name a few of the many heritages represented. This diversity stands for a France that is cognizant of its heterogeneous and immigrant identity, largely derivative of France’s past as a leading colonial power in Africa and South East Asia (a past that is perhaps all too present depending on one’s understanding of recent French forays into its old colonial sphere in countries such as Mali). Nevertheless, the team reflects a France that has welcomed immigration and by extension France’s irreconcilable role in a globalized, interconnected world, albeit one that was and has been sown together through (often French) colonialism and neo-colonizing practices.
Against the backdrop of a still crippling recession and France’s anemic economic recovery, Marine Le Pen’s National Front seeks the rollback and denial of France’s true identity as a diverse country and one that is wedded inextricably to an interconnected world. This conception of French identity collides squarely with the French identity as represented in the upcoming games in Brazil. Even more concerning, this reactionary vision has gained considerable traction among the French electorate as just last week, Le Pen’s National Front won a plurality of votes in France’s European Parliament elections. As reported by Le Monde, the National Front came out ahead of the center-right UMP party and the center-left Socialist party in 71 out of 101 French departments.
This vote can first and foremost be interpreted as a reflection of popular French disapproval of the handling of the European economic recovery and distaste for what is often (and understandably) perceived as the technocratic rule of the European elite. However, most concerning is the fact that this genuine expression of popular disapproval is given voice through the extremely revanchist and revisionary politics of Le Pen’s National Front, which calls for a rollback of the European project, harsh restrictions on immigration, and more broadly a reversal of France’s identity as a globalized, cosmopolitan country.
Amid a population dissatisfied by the overemphasis of austerity in European recovery measures, Le Pen’s revisionary French identity has crowded out other options to deal with the country’s economic and social woes. Throughout recent years, much credence has been given to the central role that Germany has played within the European Union. By its austerity-driven measures, its sound fiscal situation, and its positive employment outlook, Germany has held together the fledgling currency bloc despite the torrent of sovereign debt crises, which have sent shockwaves throughout the continent since 2008. However, Germany’s financial willingness to support the European project will be entirely for naught if France, that other country long since central to the European project, reneges on its decades old commitment to continental integration by turning its back on the French identity still witnessed in France’s World Cup squad. That is to say, European integration will by no means survive solely on the backs of German enforced, neoliberal austerity without delivering a fatal blow to the popular support of the European Union. France’s most recent election must be interpreted as a crushing reminder of this fact.
In other words, if the conception of French identity touted by Le Pen’s National Front wins out over that of the French National Team, Metternich’s old adage that “whenever France sneezes, Europe catches a cold” could evermore ring true. Shortly after last week’s electoral victory Le Pen organized a meeting among other successful right-wing parties in order to articulate and coalesce behind some form of common platform.
To depart from the prevailing dogma that holds austerity to be Europe’s sole path to survival, perhaps the two pillars of a successful European project in the years to come are German economic growth and a French commitment to an inclusive, integrating European identity. More broadly, the two pillars are economic integration and socio-political unity. Let us not forget that it was the wedding of these two interests that led the then-French President Robert Schuman to propose in 1950 the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to what we now know as European Union (a herculean task for a France embittered by the memory of two devastating continental wars against Germany). This agreement sought economic integration not as an end to itself, but as a parallel goal and as a means to political stability.
In short, through economic integration and the resulting political and social benefits, Europe would overcome the divisions that had plunged the continent into war. What, therefore, is the purpose of an economic policy—what to common Europeans appears as a policy of austerity for austerity’s sake (or the sake of European elites)—if it comes at the cost of social cohesiveness? Does this election not prove that the blind pursuit of economic austerity has served to undermine, rather than fulfill Europe’s parallel social and political mission?
Let it be known, the European Union is by no means a perfect union. The popular demands expressed by those voters who backed Le Pen and other right-wing parties reflect an understandable distaste for the overly technocratic response to Europe’s economic crisis. However, a popular critique of the direction of the European recovery is not solely the domain of the extreme-right. That is exactly what this recent election has shown; for the European project to be successful it cannot solely ride on the promise of austerity, neither does it demand a relapse into nationalism and xenophobia. That the divergence between the popular opposition to austerity and the interests of the pan-European elites has grown so wide is the true threat to European integration; it is this divergence that has enabled Le Pen’s rise.
The French may not win this year’s World Cup, but a Europe divided by popular demands for the rollback of integration can learn from the heterogeneous, supranational identity on display by the French team. The French team likewise can remind European elites that the European Union is both an economic and a social project.
Harrison Stetler is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.