It is not every day that you hear a high-profile soccer player give an impassioned speech about politics and modern society. But when Lilian Thuram donned his spectacles and marched purposefully into a press conference on the Caribbean Island of Martinique last November, it was clear that the France defender had more on his mind than the forthcoming friendly against Costa Rica.
At the same time, French suburbs were being transformed into battlefields as disaffected youths, largely from immigrant backgrounds, rioted night upon night for three weeks, burning cars, torching schools and gymnasiums, and generally making their anger known to the world.
For those who have lived in France’s rougher suburbs and kept close links to them - as Thuram has - this outbreak of violence was anything but a surprise. With unemployment spiralling, discrimination rife and much of France’s immigrant population feeling increasingly cut off from society, the dissatisfaction had to manifest itself in some form.
Racial tensions were further inflamed by the French home secretary Nicolas Sarkozy’s comment that “a high-pressure hose” was needed to wash “the scum” out of the suburbs; and Thuram unleashed his anger on a room of unsuspecting sports journalists.
“When Sarkozy talks about hosing out scum I take it personally,” fumed the Juventus centre-back, who was born in Guadeloupe but grew up in Fougeres, a ‘quartier difficile’ on the outskirts of Fontainebleau. “Using words like these is irresponsible in the current climate. People used to call me scum when I was a kid on the estate, but I wasn’t scum. I just wanted to work. The situation makes me sick. Nobody is asking the right questions. Nobody is trying to look at the real problems."
Thuram was just warming up. He spoke eloquently for almost half an hour, not only on Sarkozy’s tactlessness but also on broader issues and how he felt they might be resolved. It certainly made a change from the usual pre-match ramblings.
The significance of a black soccer player addressing such a sensitive subject in France should not be underestimated.
Thuram is a role model to many of the youngsters who took part in those November riots. When he speaks about the suburbs he is more far likely to be heard than a stuffy politician who has grown up in middle-class France.
Furthermore, as a member of France’s multiracial team that won the World Cup in 1998, he is a symbol of happier times.
Eight years ago Thuram scored two quick goals against Croatia to propel Les Bleus into the World Cup final. They are the only goals the 34-year-old has scored in 112 internationals, and he later put it down to “an act of God”.
It was just one of many beautiful stories to unravel that summer, as Aimé Jacquet’s outstanding team – made up of antecedents from Argentina, Algeria, Senegal, Poland, Portugal, Ghana, the French West Indies and France – showed the nation what can be achieved when cultural differences are put to one side.
A soccer team was never going to cure the ills of a fragmented society on its own, but when Zinedine Zidane’s goals against Brazil set up the biggest celebration in the country’s modern history a feel-good factor was born that hinted at a brighter, more united future.
French people of all age, class and colour poured onto the Champs Elysees, dancing arm in arm and chanting the country’s new ‘blacks-blancs-beurs’ (blacks-whites-Arabs) slogan. The President Jacques Chirac appeared in a blue replica shirt to hail "a tricoloured and multicoloured nation", while the face of Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants and now a national hero, was lit up victoriously in red, white and blue over the delirious crowds.
Unfortunately the illusion did not last long. Once the euphoria had passed the old problems resurfaced, and those hoping that the France’s soccer exploits would help integration in society were left disappointed.
The violent scenes at the Stade de France when Les Bleus hosted Algeria three years later provided an indication of the direction the country was moving in. It was the first time France had played its former colony, and politicians hoped that the friendly – scheduled just weeks after the September 11 bombings - would cement a supposedly improving relationship between the two countries.
They were sadly mistaken. Youths of North African origin vehemently jeered the Marseillaise before kick-off, some chanted Osama bin Laden’s name, and the match was later abandoned after a series of pitch invasions. Even some of the World Cup heroes, Zidane included, were abused and branded as traitors to Islamic youth.
Many in France began to worry. They no longer felt safe, and in 2002, amid fears that Islamic fundamentalism was becoming embedded in society, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the French elections. “When my friends in Guadeloupe phoned to tell me I thought it was a bad joke,” Thuram said. “The next day my team-mates at Juventus were laughing and making fun of France, the so-called country of human rights. I felt ashamed.”
As November’s riots suggest, the problems have not disappeared, and for somebody like Thuram, who has been lobbying to reduce discrimination for years, the frustration is understandable.
As well as participating in UEFA anti-racism projects and becoming a board member of the government’s ‘Haut Conseil à l'Integration’, Thuram has worked closely with an independent organisation called LICRA (Ligue Internationale Contre le Racisme et l’Antisémitisme).
In 1998, LICRA launched plans to raise social awareness in schools by producing videos and arranging visits with French soccer stars. “The soccer team’s success had a real impact on society,” LICRA vice-president Carine Bloch told me recently. “The number of National Front voters fell, and for the first time people were saying that a multiracial country was a good thing.”
Several players, notably Thuram and Thierry Henry, helped the project, but the government offered no support. “The authorities told us that soccer had such a marvellous image they didn’t want to tarnish it by making a link with discrimination,” said Bloch. “Perhaps they thought that two goals from Zidane were going to resolve society’s problems on their own, I don’t know. But it was a missed opportunity because when people like Thuram and Henry speak, the kids listen.”
Indeed soccer, as one of the few examples of successful integration in France, was surely the perfect educational tool. “In terms of the playing side there is no discrimination at any level, from amateur to professional,” Bloch pointed out.
The same cannot be said of other parts of society. White faces continue to have a near monopoly on French television shows, while there remain disproportionately few blacks and Arabs in parliament or in influential executive positions.
Thuram admits he often has to explain who he is in order to get into highbrow restaurants or clubs in France, while two months ago an almighty row erupted after one of the nation’s leading black athletes Eunice Barber was forcefully arrested outside the Stade de France. She later accused the police of “inflicting all of the misery possible” on her. Barber’s friend and fellow athlete Christine Arron fanned the flames by suggesting “the real problem is that in France a significant section of the police force is racist.”
The malaise has been openly manifesting itself in the country’s soccer stadia over the past year. Black players have left Corsican side Bastia complaining of racial abuse from fans, Lille have been sanctioned after their fans arranged themselves in such a way as to depict a racist symbol, and a friendly between DR Congo and Tunisia in southern Paris was abandoned after violent protests.
To hope that Les Bleus might once again restore some national pride and a semblance of unity this summer is surely wishful thinking. France followed up their 1998 success by winning EURO 2000, but the team has been in perpetual decline since then.
On Saturday they played Mexico in their final game at the Stade de France before the World Cup. It was Zidane’s 100th appearance and his last in the stadium that witnessed his finest hour. France even won 1-0, yet the atmosphere could hardly have felt less celebratory. There was no racism in the stands, just a general sense of resignation towards a team that had once given the country real hope.
Zidane, now a fading force, was replaced early in the second half having contributed nothing, while coach Raymond Domenech and three players – Fabien Barthez, Vikash Dhorasoo and Djbril Cissé – were jeered throughout, probably by many of the same ‘supporters’ who cavorted on the Champs Elysées eight years ago.
The France team now has a greater racial mix than ever. Several additions to the 1998 squad - including Lyon trio Florent Malouda, Eric Abidal and Sylvain Wiltord – grew up in tough French suburbs. Yet many fans feel that the wealthy, modern-day player has become disconnected from the realities of society. Television footage of the players arriving at their training camp in the Alps and refusing to stop to greet waiting fans was afforded plenty of airtime last week, and hasn’t aided an already-blemished reputation.
Such is the fickle nature of sport that everything would change in the unlikely event that France win the World Cup again. But just as 1998 was heralded as a victory for multicultural France, Thuram fears that failure in Germany will be seen as the opposite.
“When I hear a respected French philosopher like Alain Finkielkraut say the French soccer team is the laughing stock of Europe because it is now ‘black-black-black’, I am very concerned,” Thuram said. “Does this mean that black people aren’t regarded as being French?”
Thuram has said a lot in recent months and his comments, often provocative, have not always been welcomed. Sarkozy, who is eyeing the presidency in 2007, invited the former Monaco player to discuss the issues in his office, but the tête-à-tête worsened their feud. Thuram recently likened Sarkozy to Le Pen, while Sarkozy has tried to discredit him, saying: “Thuram’s a great soccer player but he’s not yet a great intellectual. It’s a long time since he’s been to the suburbs. He lives in Italy and has a huge salary.”
Thuram’s words probably rankle most because they touch on truths that are politically damaging. Earlier this year, television channel TF1 appointed its first-ever black presenter after a law was passed insisting that TV reflect French diversity. A sign of progress? “Of course not,” Thuram retorted. “It’s just sad that in this day and age France needs to pass a law to ensure that certain categories of French citizens are visible in the media.”
The only way forward, Thuram says, is through education. “France is being Americanised in a negative way,” he explained. “Ghettos are forming with the rich living on one side and the poor on the other. Unless policies change and long-term education is made more efficient, the problems won’t go away.” Given Thuram’s experiences - from a child growing up in the suburbs to an international soccer star and conscientious campaigner for equal rights – it might just be worth listening to him.