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Zidane and France: the rules of the game

KA Dilday
18 July 2006

The French football captain Zinedine Zidane's act of retaliation in the world-cup final was also an immigrant's declaration of independence from the country that reveres him, says KA Dilday.

In the days after the world-cup final in Berlin on 9 July 2006, the contrast between the contestants was brutal: while victorious Italy engaged in an orgiastic frenzy of the nationalism that the sporting event provokes, defeated France was simply confused. How had it come to this: that their sublime, venerated midfielder, their beloved beur, had head-butted his way into ejection from the field and worldwide notoriety?

Even before the lip-readers got involved, it seemed that everyone assumed that Zinedine Zidane's primal reaction on the field in the 2006 final was provoked by a comment about his origins. Zidane has since revealed that the insults that prompted him to drive his head into opposing team member Marco Materazzi were about his mother and sister. Regardless of what was said, the assumption that the comment during a crucial football match that would make a seasoned professional react so rashly would be a racist one, is telling on three counts: about the prevalence of racist comments in the sport, about the tensions that play on people of African origin in Europe and about the perception that racist insults have a unique quality to send people over the edge.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (August 2005)

"Art and suffering: four years since 9/11" (August 2005)

"Rebranding America" (September 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice" (December 2005)

"A question of class" (January 2006)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(February 2006)

"The worth of illusion" (March 2006)

"The labour of others" (April 2006)

"A question of class, race, and France itself: reply to Richard Wolin" (May 2006)

"The writer and politics: Peter Handke's choice" (June 2006)

A changed narrative

Europe's face is changing, in large part because of the influx of people from Africa. On 10 July, the day after the world-cup final, fifty-eight European and African ministers met in Rabat, Morocco, for the first African-European conference discussing migration from Africa to Europe. At the conference, France's interior minister and likely next president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was prepared to be attacked over his crackdown on illegal immigration and his desire to make France's immigration policy one based on the immigrant's talents and skills rather than one of family unification.

At present, France is one of the European countries that legally takes in the highest number of African immigrants. Sarkozy, true to form, pre-empted criticism with an aggressive speech; its theme was that Europe – and specifically France – cannot absorb everyone from Africa. The idea was echoed by France's president (and Sarkozy's bitter rival), Jacques Chirac, in his annual Bastille day address to the nation on 14 July.

Here, Sarkozy and Chirac have managed cleverly to shift the focus from the real impetus for the reforms. In truth, Sarkozy's reforms were not in response to an economy strained by too many immigrants, but to the October-November 2005 riots in poor, immigrant neighbourhoods and an angry, displeased constituency of the most regular voters – les Francais de souche (people of long-time French lineage) – who had their lives disrupted by certain immigrants' behaviour.

While the worry that their national economies and social services cannot absorb tens of thousands of new people is certainly legitimate, the problem that immigration has created most prominently for European politicians of late is the quotidian one of groups of people who cannot figure out how to live together harmoniously. These tensions are part of the reason that people in France love to love Zidane, the champion soccer player from a rough, ugly, predominantly north African housing project in southern France.

France has always believed in its moral superiority and has spent a half century trying to reclaim it after its shameful collaborations with Nazism in the second world war. Since the season of car-burnings by the mostly black and brown youth in the banlieues, the national moral failing of pervasive racism that prevents these youth from getting jobs in France has become an internationally known problem. Francais de souche love to love Zidane in part because his popularity seems to belie French racism and exemplify the country's sophistication and tolerance. Zidane was the successful progeny of what one might call "good immigrants": people who worked hard and uncomplainingly at menial jobs and took care of their children. Never mind that like a shocking percentage of kids of north African descent in France, Zidane only completed the most basic level of school.

Then, with the headbutt that got him expelled by the referee in tournament's and his own final match in one of the most watched events in the world, Zidane stepped out of the narrative of beur-made-good. People in France are simply baffled: by the botched exit and by their hero's angry act of violence – even though this quick internal rage is something that Zidane has exhibited before.

Football is an aggressive, physical, often cruel sport. Anyone who watches it regularly knows that the players are covertly pushing, kicking and elbowing each other viciously throughout the entire match. To say that there is no excuse for violence seems rather hypocritical for all who watch and enjoy the sport. Most people who called his behaviour thuggish object to the uncontrolled violence bred of emotion rather than calculated violence in service of the game. Zidane flouted the unspoken rules that in enlightened society, violence is a tool, not an emotional response. More important, he broke the social contract by forcing millions of parents who watched it with their children to depart from the uncomplicated absolutes they would have preferred to serve them on a Sunday evening and instead, to acknowledge life's complexities.

Next, Zidane complicated the matter with his follow-up interview. An American star with Zidane's prominence would have publicly flagellated himself to salvage his endorsement potential and bank account, but Zidane refused to really apologise since he wasn't actually sorry. In fact, he seemed to imply that he would have done it again. This refusal to interpret his behaviour by the mores of France is in part, what Europeans de souche object to: the refusal or inability of some immigrant communities to play by their adopted societies' rules, implicit or written.

A challenge to the norm

In stepping out of line, Zidane exemplified the stereotype of the uncontrollable, volatile, unrefined immigrant. In every culture, there is a time and place for violence, a time and place for emotion and a time and place for religion, and even a time and place for public display. Immigrants bring some of their own mores and behaviour to a culture that doesn't understand them and doesn't want to. Not just what might drive a man to forget about the honour of his country on a football field but simple everyday things.

In a less dramatic incident, I recall walking with a friend in Geneva's perfectly maintained Parc le Grange on a chilly Sunday afternoon last winter. The park was filled mostly with other genteely strolling couples and families. But then we came across a group of African men gathered around a small obelisk. They were milling, shivering in jackets as they stood around the monument with a small quietly playing music box. Although they were trying, it didn't really look like a happy occasion. My companion, who spends much of his time working in Africa, chuckled sadly. "I feel sorry for those guys", he said. "In Africa, Sunday is a time for family gatherings and here they probably live in a tiny room with no place to go."

To be an immigrant one must already have repudiated one's country in some way because to leave it is to say that something about your home was lacking. Perhaps that is why insults that address race or ethnicity have such power to wound immigrants. They affirm something that some immigrants are loath to admit: for all of their professed pride in their origins, their presence in a new land means that there was something they or their parents found wanting about the land they left.

And Zidane, while being venerated as a beloved son of France, has always expressed his love for his father's village in Algeria. Although he has taken to the fight against racism in football, Zidane has never been willing to travel around France being the representative of the success of multiculturalism, perhaps because he doesn't believe it. Zidane has said that because of who he was he knew that he would have to work twice as hard to be successful. "Every day I think about where I come from and I am still proud to be who I am: first, a Kabyle from La Castellane, then an Algerian from Marseille, and then a Frenchman", he told a British newspaper reporter.

In that way his headbutt and subsequent refusal to apologise for it was a reminder that he has not been completely seduced by France. Zidane is a Frenchman by birth but he had his own unstated rules as impenetrable to some French as France's rules are to some of its newest residents. This seems intolerable to some French who believe if one comes to this country, they must follow the rules. But this concept of unbreakable rules must seem hypocritical to someone of north African origin who knows that despite laws against discrimination, their CV is five times more likely to be tossed in the garbage than a comparable one from someone with an ancient French name.

But imperfect and unwelcoming though Europe may be, immigrants will still come, particularly from Africa as economic and political situations dictate that they must. What immigrants have to decide is how much they are willing to adapt for access to economic opportunity and social harmony.

What Europe will have to decide is how much it is willing to adapt its idea of the norm so that it can avoid the ever more frequent chafing and clashes it is experiencing when its newest residents step outside of its present concept of it. This theme, the ability to adapt and harmonise, will loom large for many years to come.

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