The Nexus between Popular Culture and Politics: The Case of the French Far-Right and Karim Benzema

18 juin 2021

On May 17th, 2021, Didier Deschamps, the French national football team’s coach, announced the list of the 26 players who will participate to the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship (Euro 2020). As earlier leaks had confirmed the return of Real Madrid footballer Karim Benzema, five years after his last appearance with Les Bleus, controversies surrounding Frenchness and football resurfaced.

The decision, immediately politicized, shed light on the deep contradictions characterizing the French far-right dominant discourses which aim at defending a supposedly disappearing French culture while failing to understand its very essence. French rap, for example, is the second most popular industry worldwide after that of the United States, offering a rich window through which the French music scene can be projected globally. “Au DD”, a song by the famous French rap duo PNL, was the first French rap song ever to reach the Spotify’s Top 30 in 2019. In 2020, Jean Messiha, a far-right French figure, had described the two men who appeared on their album’s cover on a Tweet by Winamax referring to football and betting as two “players of African type”, highlighting both the far-right ingrained association of Frenchness with whiteness and its deep ignorance of what are contemporary major sources of popular cultural influence on the international scene.

Urban music and football, two major popular cultural forces in France, are often intertwined. For example, Vegedream, a French urban pop singer, released a majorly popular song celebrating the victory of Les Bleus in the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia which remained on Spotify France’s Top 50 for months. This year, the French rapper Youssoupha’s ‘Écris mon nom en bleu’ [write my name in blue], was revealed as the new team’s anthem for the Euro 2020, an alleged decision by the French Football Federation which was soon criticized by far-right figures. Jordan Bardella, the second vice-president of the main French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) equated it to the surrender of France to a part of the nation made of ‘racailles’ or scums, a racist term popularized by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy which generally refers to Black and Arab men living in the underprivileged suburbs in France.

The most vivid reactions from both right and far-right parties in France came from the return of Karim Benzema to the French football team. Other than condemnable scandals which took place outside of the football field, he has been accused of disliking France for two main reasons, which reveal far bigger and problematic dynamics of the French far-right discourse. As he used to perform with Les Bleus, it was often noted that he was not singing the French national anthem, which has been interpreted as an apparent sign of his lack of Frenchness by numerous observers. He was also blamed, repeatedly, for allegedly having described Algeria – rather than France – as his country during his young professional career.

In a Netflix documentary, “Le K Benzema”, the Real Madrid player simply explained that it wasn’t obligatory to sing La Marseillaise, but that he would have done so if it was. Singing the national anthem, wearing a national football jersey or waving a national flag during sporting competitions constitute signs of what Michael Billig has described as ‘banal nationalism’ (1995) – or every day, pervasive markers of belonging the nation particularly present in Western countries. Mega-sporting events such as the Euro championship constitute privileged spaces in which demonstrations of banal nationalism contribute to the broader representation of nations and the potential strengthening of national identities. Not singing the national anthem can then become, on the contrary, a sign of flawed nationalism, as interpreted by the French far-right. As noted by the French historian Pascal Blanchard, the fact that Benzema used not to sing the Marseillaise before playing with Les Bleus could have been a mere sign of provocation. However, what is inherently problematic in this particular controversy isn’t that Benzema didn’t sing the Marseillaise, but that other white French players – and there were many – who used not to sing the anthem either have never been suspected of any lack of Frenchness as a result of it.

Demonstrations of ‘banal nationalism’ have become privileged sources through which the French far-right questions and delegitimizes the national belonging of French citizens who apparently do not fit into their interpretation of ‘assimilation to the French nation’, such as was the case with Karim Benzema. They have also used precepts of French Republicanism to further alienate the player, citing years later a radio interview he had given in 2006 in which he notably declared that Algeria was his country – and that his parents were from there –when questioned about whether he would play for the Algerian or French national football teams. Plural identities have been particularly problematic in France, a subject of controversies which has not only been contained within the right board of the political chess. As imagined by early French Republicans, the first and foremost identity of the nation shall be that of French, before any other national, racial, ethnic or religious identity.

This idea of singularity is at the foundation of French nationalism, which actually constitutes a particularly successful case study of the building of a centralized and united nation, at the expense of regionalisms at first, through the 19th and 20th century (Weber, 1976). It prefers, in contrast with the multiculturalism of the Anglo-Saxon communities for example, that its citizens do not define themselves in terms of other national or racial origins through a blurry process of ‘integration’ – it shall be noted that these contemporary principles (un)surprisingly don’t apply to Bretons for instance, whose region is scattered by regional flags and whose local language is being preserved. However, when Benzema claims his Algerian-ness, it raises questions about the primacy of his French identity, an ideal of the French Republicanism. The notion of plural identities has long been studied by social sciences, which show that it is inherently possible to belong to several communities at once. Hence, simply put, the fact that Benzema declared that his country was Algeria doesn’t make him any less French.

The fact that claiming to be Breton is tolerated while other non-French identities isn’t constitutes a postcolonial legacy explained by ingrained anxieties around immigration and non-Whiteness in postcolonial French politics. Those double-standards around plural identities, where politicians tolerate regionalist sentiments while denouncing other forms of belonging, highlight far deeper issues posed by ideal French Republican principles in contemporary France.

To conclude, it is important to return to this concept of ‘assimilation’, a core principle of the French Republic which first targeted the Basque or the Breton people for example through vast schooling reforms aimed at teaching the French language before regional dialects in the 19th century. Today, ‘assimilation’ is used as a buzzword by right and far-right politicians to denounce the alleged failure of some French citizens and immigrants to integrate within French culture, using Benzema as a symbol. The question then is: if popular culture today is characterized by internationally recognized rap music and football, isn’t it the far-right that has failed to integrate to our contemporary French culture?

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