How Les Bleus united France by not taking the knee

17 June 2021

8:22 PM

17 June 2021

8:22 PM

For those who lean to the right and live in France, Tuesday nightwas magnificent. Not only did LesBleus open their EuropeanChampionship campaign with a 1-0 victory against Germany, but their boysdefied expectation by not taking the knee before kick-off.

The build-up to the match had been overshadowed by an announcementon Monday by the team captain, Hugo Lloris, that France would follow Englandand Wales in taking the knee. Cue 24 hours of controversy. On social media, inTV studios and in the National Assembly it was ‘La question du jour’. Shouldthey or shouldn’t they?

The issue proved as divisive in France as it has in Britain, with theresponse conforming to political ideologies. The far-left applauded the moveand the far-right expressed their outrage. ‘Boycottlesbleus’ was a popularhashtag on Twitter throughout Tuesday, although most football fans merely wonderedwhat the link was between an American gesture and France.

For Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party the question proved particularlyproblematic. The Sports Minister, Roxana Mărăcineanu declared her supportfor taking the knee but Jean Terlier, the party’s spokesman in the NationalAssembly, said he understood why an American symbol could alienate French fans,particularly as it could be construed as a criticism of French police who, have‘nothing in common’ with their American counterparts.

Asit turned out, France didn’t take the knee. Why not? Initially, it wassuggested that a mindless Greenpeace stunt minutes before kick-off – in which aparaglider protesting about oil use crashed into the crowd, injuring two fans –had thrown the French off their stride, so to speak. Others speculated that theteam abandoned the gesture because Germany refused to participate.

Inhis post-match interview, the French coach Didier Deschamps was asked why thegesture was abandoned. His response suggested the furore about the gesture had unsettled thesquad. ‘No matter what we do, or what the players say, it leads to aninterpretation and always a hijacking in one direction or another,’ he said. ‘That’snot a good thing’.

According to the French media, the squad was ‘astonished’ by theresponse to their decision to take the knee and several players expressed theirunease at adopting a gesture that could divide the nation. ‘We discussed itamong ourselves,’ explained one of the players, Raphaël Varane, on Wednesday. ‘It’strue that today it’s not the same symbol that it was at the start… today it’smore a symbol of tension in that one team takes the knee and another teamdoesn’t. There’s not a collective momentum, a clear and strong message ofunanimity. Therefore the message is not the one that we support.’

Emphasising that the French squad is proud of its diversity,Varane – whose father is from Martinique – added: ‘Our way of fighting alldiscrimination is to show that together, with these differences, we can beunited and carry the same values. Our objective is to unite the millions ofFrench.’

One suspects this is the outcome Emmanuel Macron would have wanted.The President likes his football and earlier this month he met the squad towish them well in the Euros.

He’son particularly good terms with 22-year-old Kylian Mbappé, not only a giftedplayer but a role model with a keen sense of social awareness. In 2018 he dinedat the Elysée in the presence of Macron and George Weah, the president ofLiberia, to discuss the development of sport in Africa. Last month Mbappédelighted the government by publicising his Covid vaccination on social media to encourage others to follow suit.

Inshort, the French squad is a valuable asset to Macron; a successful celebrationof diversity, in a country that in recent years has struggled to find muchcommon ground. When France won the World Cup in 2018 Macron ensured he was photographedat the matches, cheering on his boys, and he’s sure to do something similar ifFrance reach the final of the Euros.

What he doesn’t want is for the Bleus to become divisive,gifting any political capital to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, who were quickto criticise the initial decision to take a knee.

NationalRally have also expressed their displeasure at the controversial striker KarimBenzema returning to the national team, after five years in the wilderness. Theyaccuse him of having a ‘dishonourable attitude’ towards France. Their maingripe, other than his pride in his Algerian roots, is that Benzema didn’t singthe La Marseillaise before matches. But he did on Tuesday. What’s more,Benzema and his teammates ran their socks off against Germany, in a performancethat underlined why France are the tournament favourites.

ThisFrench team is mature on and off the field. They have united the entire countryand won their hearts and minds. However well England play in the coming weeks, youcan’t say that about the Three Lions.

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