France continues to be rocked by after shocks stemming from its World Cup debacle. Mediapart, a Paris based journal that focuses on social and political commentary published a recent series of articles which document a covert plan to start limiting the number of black players and players of North African descent seeking admission into the country's football academies.
According to Mediapart, Francois Blaquart, chairman of the DTN (National Technical Board) which oversees coaching policy laid out a secret blueprint that would impose a 30% cap of certain categories of youth players during a recent meeting. It was a closed door affair and was attended by Laurent Blanc, the present coach of Les Bleus and Eric Mombaerts, the U21 coach.
This is a potentially explosive issue. France's 1998 World Cup triumph was largely seen through the lens of racial integration on both sides of the debate. Inclusionists felt players like Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram represented the new France but there were large swaths of the French society especially the far right who decried the 'blanc, black, beur' as alien to their culture.
The most recent World Cup performance and a new government edict banning cultural symbols pointedly aimed at the Muslim population have emboldened these voices. Alain Finkelkraut, a virulent critic of Les Bleus warned the damage done to national pride was due to a racial divide, one side that upheld France as 'French' and the other subsuming it under a polyglot nation. 'Blanc, black, beur' or more 'Black, beur, blanc' to give it an edge in outrage is an euphemism for washed out nationalism.
Laurent Blanc seems to have actively encouraged this discriminatory process. During the DTN meeting he expressed concern with the current stereotype of a French footballer as "large, strong, powerful" and suggested that it needed to be changed.
"And who are the large, strong, powerful? The blacks. That's the way it is. It is a current fact. God knows that in the training centres and football academies, there are lots."
He went on to say that Spain did not have this problem.
"I'm going to give you the example of the Spanish. They don't have these problems [...] The Spanish, they told me 'we don't have a problem. Us, we don't have any blacks'."
Blanc rationalizes his unpalatable statement by implying Spain enjoys its status as the world's present footballing power because of a direct association between nationalism and racial monochromy. It is actually a strange example and belies years of Spanish underachievement blamed on regional sectarianism.
The trend of French born ethnic players who trained in France and then took advantage of recently changed FIFA rules to switch national allegiances was also brought up Blanc as further proof of loss of national fealty. He did not name those players or countries but this World Cup saw Antar Yahia and Nadir Belhadj bolstering Algeria, their country of origin. Other examples include Marouane Chamakh (Morocco), Sebastien Bassong (Cameroon) and Moussa Sow (Senegal).
Surely Blanc knows better. This is a two way street. Does he not acknowledge the blinding fact that France achieved success with the surfeit of talent at their disposal from its former colonies? The reversal shows the level of competition for a berth in the national squad. Many of these players know that they're not good enough and stand a better chance of representing their country of origin. Which departing player has hurt France's chances?
These are not the shocking statements of a politician drumming up the grievances of the far right. They come from the national manager, a former Marseilles player. Part of a club inextricably linked with the story of of black and North African immigration. Blanc returned from Barca and saw first hand the club's rejuvenation because of this open policy. After 18 years, Marseilles gained their first Championnat last season with a new generation of players.
Jean Tigana, Marcel Desailly, William Gallas, Samir Nasri, and Franck Ribery exemplify the underpinning of varied ethnicity which have made the club the most storied in French football history. L'OM have been nurtured by their North African fan base who remained loyal to their team in their darkest hour following the Bernard Tapie scandal.
Blanc also reaped the fruits of that immigration most recently through his managerial stint with Bordeaux who won their first Championnat after 10 years in 2009. The Girondins were helped by standouts like Alou Diarra and Yoan Gouffran playing alongside Yoann Gourcuff and Benoît Trémoulinas.
Lilian Thuram, Blanc's team mate in their 1998 World Cup success has been left saddened by these developments. "Of course you feel hurt, of course," Thuram said in a television interview yesterday. "You feel it's a perpetual (cycle) of always casting doubt on people with regards to their colour and religion."
France is in a delicate stage of rebuilding its squad and recent form shows encouraging signs they're heading in the right direction. A recent match with England showed a gulf in the talent gap between the two countries. Unlike Italy which is in dire need of talent the French U21 squad which won last year's Euro are represented by players who in a few years should make a seamless transition to the senior squad.
Usually affirmative action seeks to leaven the ethnic and racial imbalance but France is going through the throes of reverse racism. Unfortunately if it is allowed to happen to an institution where the effects of such social engineering are visceral it could seriously alienate the very actors who consider the sport as a means towards assimilation. Laurent Blanc's path to national success can only be assured if he remains colour blind.
Update: Francois Blaquart has been suspended by the FFF and the plan has been abandoned. Laurent Blanc issued an apology but states he was misquoted and his support for a quota was aimed at stopping dual nationality players and not to discriminate against black players or players of North African origin. The FFF is still in the process of investigating and its president Fernand Duchaussoy said that Blanc's future would depend on its outcome. A separate inquiry has been ordered by the French sports minister and will be available in a few weeks.