Liberté, Egalité, Mbappé: How France’s World Cup Success Highlights its Urban “Territorial Apartheid”

‘Ghetto’ isn’t a word readily associated with the South of France. However, fifteen minutes’ walk from the super yachts, Michelin-starred restaurants and jewellery stores of Marseille’s Vieux-Port is Félix-Pyat, Marseille’s ghetto and France’s poorest district. Félix-Pyat’s residents are relatively homogenous, with low levels of education and healthcare and high rates of unemployment. They are also non-white. They are second-generation French nationals whose parents arrived from Africa and the Caribbean during the mass migrations that underpinned France’s post-war reconstruction. In a city that defines itself as France’s multicultural melting pot, the racial wealth gap is stark.

The situation is similar in Paris. Unlike Marseille’s patchwork of rich and poor, Paris’ poverty is entirely stratified, contained to the city’s suburbs, or banlieues. The problem of poverty in the banlieues of France’s urban centres is so pronounced that former Prime Minister Manuel Valls called it a “territorial, social, ethnic apartheid” and current President Emmanuel Macron has likened it to a form of “house arrest”.

Bienvenue à Paris (Credit: Wilfrid Masse)

To many in France the word banlieue is synonymous with crime, drugs, and a violent delinquent youth. It is from these areas that the Charlie Hebdo shooters and some of the November 2015 Paris attackers hailed, and recent discourse has characterised the banlieues as hotbeds of radical Islam. Many French cities can be divided with startling accuracy between rich and poor, white and black, and secular and religious by drawing just one ring on a city map.

However, it is in one such banlieue, Bondy in north-east Paris, where France has found its new hero – a nineteen-year old by the name of Kylian Mbappé who has risen to become the second-most expensive player in football history. The young forward was the electric centre of France’s World Cup win this summer, delivering many of the tournament’s most entertaining moments as well as scoring four goals and winning the Best Young Player award. He is a second-generation immigrant, the child of a Cameroonian football coach and an Algerian handball player. Mbappé is symbolic of a growing trend in French football, and Paris in particular. 14 of France’s 23-man World Cup squad were FIFA-eligible to play for an African nation instead of France, 8 of them from Parisian banlieues. Paris-born players also lined the squads of Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Portugal. Where once São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro reigned supreme, Parisian suburbs are now the breeding grounds of the world’s brightest talents, driven by extensive investment in local clubs by the French Football Federation and a culture that sees football and rap music as young men’s only possible means of escape.

Jubilant scenes and streams of “bleu, blanc et rouge” filled the air as France firmly established themselves as a footballing powerhouse. This photo from the fan zone in Nantes, Loire-Atlantique (Credit: Etienne Valois)

France has now witnessed the fruits of its suburban investment. As one million people lined the streets of the Champs-Élysées to celebrate the decisive victory over Croatia in the final, triumphant exclamations of unity and diversity flooded social media. The names Mbappé, Kanté and Pogba were sung in the streets of a city that has shunned so many of their classmates. Long forgotten were the tensions of the 2010 World Cup Group Stage, when several players went on strike led by Senegal-born Patrice Evra, leading many in France to question the passion of the team’s non-white players. President Macron welcomed the victorious team back to Paris by telling them to “remember where they came from”. For a moment, France celebrated the ‘boys from the banlieues’ and the diversity and difficulty that they represent.

This summer’s success inevitably evokes memories of 1998. On home soil, France lifted the World Cup propelled by a core of immigrant players including the talismanic Zinedine Zidane, a child of Algerian immigrants who grew up in La Castellane, a banlieue known as Marseille’s “drug supermarket”. The team were nicknamed génération black, blanc, beur [black, white, Arab] and were seen as a symbol of France’s new diversity. France had been rebuilt by immigrants, and now they were the foundation of its finest hour and architects of its bright future.

Zinedine Zidane holds the 1998 World Cup at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the same district his parents first settled in when they arrived in the 1960s (Credit: Reuters / Vincent Kessler)

Social change, however, was not forthcoming. The optimism of 1998 quickly gave way to a wave of nationalism led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who became the first far-right candidate to make it to the final round of the French Presidential election in 2002. Le Pen lost by the largest margin in French history, but eventual winner Jacques Chirac instigated a raft of anti-religious legislation that primarily impacted the Islamic population. Though the French Republic was founded on the principle of “laïcité” [secularism], this targeted anti-religious approach marked a political paradigm shift that has characterised 21st century France. In 2005, rising anti-immigrant sentiment in both society and parliament erupted into three weeks of rioting across the nation’s banlieues. 25,000 rioters burned over 8,000 cars during the unrest, and a state of emergency was declared that lasted for three months. In recent years, the rise of fundamental Islam has been used to further justify racial discrimination. In 2017, Le Pen’s daughter Marine again led the far-right to the final round of the Presidential election, winning twice the number of votes as her father in her defeat to Emmanuel Macron.

Modern France is more divided than it has ever been. Incidents like the forced removal of women’s clothing by police in Nice in 2016 are symptomatic of a country that does not trust many of its own citizens. 44% of French people see Islam as a threat to the French identity, and a practising Catholic is four times more likely to get a job interview than a practising Muslim. A report commissioned by the French government recently found that discrimination against Muslims in France is worse than discrimination against African-Americans in the United States.


As the final whistle blew, the streets of Paris erupted in celebration (Credit: Flickr)

Despite this, the 2018 World Cup success is being hailed as a beacon that once again could begin to heal a fractured nation. Several players have taken offence to the insinuation that this was an ‘African’ World Cup victory. Paul Pogba said before the final “There are many origins here. That’s what makes France beautiful” and when a prominent sports newspaper listed the squad alongside the flags of other countries the players could have represented, left-back Benjamin Mendy retweeted the post with only French flags. Across the banlieues, the Tricolore flies proudly as residents celebrate the country’s success. The banlieusards are proud of their heritage, but they are also proud to be French.

Kylian Mbappé is not Zinedine Zidane, 2018 is not 1998, and history is not fated to repeat itself. Mbappé is proud to be the ‘boy from the banlieue’ and donated his World Cup match fees to Parisian charities because he considers the honour of playing for France reward enough. Crucially, in the past most non-white French stars have played abroad. Mbappé, however, plays in Paris for a team that is emerging as a global powerhouse. Mbappé’s name adorns the shirts of the city’s youth both black and white, and his infectious smile and youthful exuberance have made him a popular figure, except maybe in rival city Marseille. As Paris Saint-Germain aim to match the glory of their national counterparts, the local boy on the team’s right-wing is capturing the imagination of the nation. As unlikely as it may seem, when fraternité is at stake, France is turning to Mbappé.

Henry Stout

2024 © The Perspective – All Rights Reserved