France's World Cup soccer woes rock French society

The meltdown of France's World Cup team - both on and off the pitch - have shaken all walks of French society. The team has become a metaphor for everything seen as wrong in France today – politics, race, wealth, and too much individualism.

Desmond Scholtz/AP
France's World Cup soccer team warms up during a training session in Knysna, South Africa, Monday.

It may be just sport. But recriminations here over the French soccer team meltdown – the losses, plus everything else – have begun in fury, and are spilling into politics, culture, and race divides.

Two weeks of rancor in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by Les Bleus – and no goals scored – is being taken as a mirror on French society by philosophers and analysts: some call it a metaphor for President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party ostentation, wealth, and individualism – others blame a new generation of “crude and vulgar” players from minority French suburbs.

France is sensitive about its world image in the best of times. But when its team self-destructs on the World Cup stage, when it ties Uruguay and loses to Mexico, when its star forward hurls epithets at the coach and is sent packing, when the team then goes on strike, when some players won’t dress to play against host South Africa today, when the team director resigns in tears, when the French public shouts “shame” in the streets and the sports minister is pushed to the cameras by President Sarkozy to call for team dignity, when the world press snickers, when bank Credit Agricole drops ad sponsorship, and the far right blames “blacks” and the far left blames “millionaire athletes” – it all amounts to a national crisis, a moment of bitter societal soul-searching.

IN PICTURES: 10 World Cup players to watch

Just a game? Not here.

Jean- Francois Kahn, founder of the weekly Marianne, among others, sees collapse as part of the Sarkozy era: "Listen to sports commentaries…analyzing the cause of our battering in the World Cup…. one could think they are describing the state of our society or stigmatizing the way we are governed…depicting the Sarkozian power system…arrogance…vanity…contempt."

Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut however raised the usually taboo French subject of race, bluntly saying, "The French team suffers from ethnic and religious divisions…it is a team of hoodlums ... with mafia ethics…a team of people who don't" care about France.

In 1998, France won the World Cup on the strength of its racially diverse team. A phrase, “black, blond, buerre [for Arab],” was coined to represent a model of French social integration, and the image of Zinedine Zidane, the World Cup hero of Algerian parents, got plastered across the Arc de Triomphe.

“Now we are at the exact opposite of ‘98, when there were hopes that soccer could have a positive social effect,” says Pap N’diaye of the School for Advanced Studies of the Social Sciences in Paris. “Now in France a sense of decline is exacerbated by economics, the fall of the euro…a betrayal by elites felt in some places, and in the midst of this the French national soccer team is in disarray. Now you hear the words ‘black, black, black’ about the team. Unfortunately, this will spark our ‘cultural’ divide' discussion.”

France's participation in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa started badly and hasn’t gotten better. There was guilt over a qualifying win over Ireland when a final goal appeared to involve an illegal helping “hand” by player Thierry Henry. This was followed by a series of scandals involving players moved on and off the team, five-star luxury hotel accommodations, and even charges of sex with a child prostitute by the only white star who happens to be a Muslim convert. The team practiced and bickered in isolation and there’s a sense that it never connected with the larger public.

Typically, the coach bears responsibility for the success or failure of a national soccer team. But in Paris, the suburbs blame the coach, while the city blames the team. And the tone is bitter.

In Paris today a huge viewing screen set beneath the Eiffel Tower at the Trocadéro is attended by a thunderous drum beat on a cool, cloudless day. At 4 p.m. (10 am EST) France plays South Africa in a must-win match for each team to stay in the tournament. As the crowds gather, the atmosphere is one of despair.

“I feel a little strange about it,” says Thomas Fourquet who has blogged on the World Cup for British newspapers. “It’s unprecedented, because we don’t know if we have a team; will they play or throw it? I hope they go for it, but a lot of my friends just hope they crash and we start over.”

IN PICTURES: 10 World Cup players to watch

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