Football is often used as a tool to unite people, but Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front party is using the beautiful game as a “divisive political weapon”, writes Nabila Ramdani.
Marine Le Pen has not said if she was among the millions who watched Algeria’s heroic football team narrowly lose to Germany in the World Cup earlier this week, but the chances are she wasn’t. The leader of France’s far-right National Front (FN) thinks little of the sense of pride, passion and pure happiness which goes with a superb sporting performance by foreigners. She would not care that the Fennecs (‘desert foxes’) now have an army of admirers from around the world, to add to the millions in her own country who come from Algerian backgrounds.
Instead, a few hours before the game, Ms Le Pen continued her family tradition of using football as a divisive political weapon – one that spreads populist hatred. Sounding just like her father, the convicted racist and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, Ms Le Pen said immigrants to France should always support the national team and no-one else.
Explaining her provocative theory, she told Europe 1 radio station that rowdiness following Algeria football triumphs was caused by ‘the total failure of immigration policies in our country and the refusal of a number of bi-national citizens to assimilate,’ adding: ‘The state must act, it must end dual nationality, it must stop immigration.’
Isolated disturbances involving mainly young, excited men are part and parcel of mass sporting occasions in every country in the world. Bad behaviour ranges from the boorish to the violently anti-social, but in the case of Fennecs supporters Ms Le Pen said those involved ‘must choose: they are Algerian or French… they can’t be both’.
Well actually they can be. The principal reason why there are more than two million people of Algerian origin in France is because the North African country was run from Paris for 132 years up until 1962. Former French colonisers had needed cheap labour to rebuild their country after the Second World War and imported hundreds of thousands of Algerians into temporary work camps on the outskirts of major cities. These squalid settlements developed into overcrowded housing estates which exist to this day. Occupants continue to suffer discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives, from employment and housing to religious expression.
Faced with few opportunities and feeling marginalised both physically and metaphorically, French-Algerians of all generations naturally foster a strong allegiance to their country of origin. They associate it with a sense of respect and belonging – one which contrasts markedly with the way they are treated in France.
France is officially a secular, ‘colour-blind’ Republic, so there are no official statistics based on ethnicity, but anyone who has spent time in Algerian communities soon works out that their social and economic problems are chronic. They are certainly not ones that Ms Le Pen has any interest in – on the contrary she views predominantly Muslim social groups linked to Africa as a danger to the fabric of society. Hence her using anything she can, including football, to push her divisive agenda.
It was the same in the 1990s when Jean-Marie Le Pen, then the leader of the FN, regularly complained about the France national team having ‘too many players of colour’. By this he meant stars like Zinedine Zidane, who helped Les Bleus lift the World Cup in Paris in 1998. That ‘Zizou’ came from an Algerian background clearly infuriated Mr Le Pen, a former soldier implicated in the torture of prisoners during the Algerian War of Independence.
To France’s shame, Le Pen senior went on to come second in the 2002 presidential election. His daughter now believes she can go a step further, and win outright in 2017. She was buoyed by European election results in May, which saw the FN win 25 per cent of France’s popular vote – the highest proportion among all parties. As the country’s Socialist government lurches from one economic failure to the next, and the conservative opposition is submerged in sleaze scandals, the Le Pen brand of aggressive, vindictive nationalism is once again finding an ear.
It is now France’s turn to face Germany at football. The sides play a World Cup quarter final on Friday. Ms Le Pen is far more likely to watch the game this time, and if she does she should have a look at some of the others cheering for France. She will find people from all kinds of backgrounds, including many Algerians with French passports who support Les Bleus enthusiastically, despite having every excuse not to.
This post originally appeared in the Middle East Monitor.