|Written by:||Meshack Masibo|
When France won the world cup the international news was awash with jokes that Africa had won the world cup. Les Blues has plenty of players who have roots on the mother continent; Presnel Kimpembe was born in France, but his father is Congolese, Samuel Umtiti was born in Cameroon and Roger Milla even tried to get him to play for Cameroon, Paul Pogba was born in France to two Guinean parents, Kylian Mbappé was born in France to a Cameroonian father and Algerian mother, Ousmane Dembélé was born in France his mother is French, but of Mauritanian and Senegalese descent, while his father is from Mali.
Corentin Tolisso was born in France, but has connections to Togo through his parents. In 2016, Togo manager Claude Le Roy tried to get him to play for the African side, but Tolisso declined. N’Golo Kanté was born in France, both his parents are from Mali. Kanté was approached by Mali ahead of the 2015 African Cup of Nations having not played for France in any of their age group teams but he said no.
Blaise Matuidi was born in France to an Angolan father and Congolese mother.Steven Nzonzin was born in France with Congolese parental heritage. He declined playing for Congo twice. His father did, however, once ask if he was eligible to play for England back in 2016. He wasn’t, though having already represented France at age group level. Steve Mandanda on the other hand was born in the DRC and moved to France when he was a teenager.
Adil Rami was born on the French island of Corsica to Moroccan parents. Nabil Fekir was born in France to Algerian Parents. He was named in Algeria’s squad for friendlies against Oman and Qatar in March 2015. However, he withdrew to take part in the French squad for friendlies against Brazil and Denmark. jibril Sidibé has links to Mali, but was born in France.
Benjamin Mendy was born in France to Senegalese parents. He decided to represent France and made his senior debut in March 2017. Paul Pogba’s elder twin brothers play for Guinea but their younger sibling, born in the suburbs of Paris, was just 20 when France handed him a first cap, thereby tying him to their cause. FIFA permits player to switch international allegiance only before they have played a competitive senior international. Cameroon sent famed striker Roger Milla to try to persuade Samuel Umtiti to play for them. He was born in Yaounde but moved to France at an early age and came up through the French junior national teams. Back-up goalkeeper Steve Mandanda is the other African-born member of France’s squad at the World Cup and has a brother who has kept goal for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Close links between French and African football go back some 80 years. Senegalese Raoul Diagne played in the 1938 World Cup and later became a deputy in the French assembly, as well as the first coach of independent Senegal. Just Fontaine, whose tally of 13 goals in the 1958 finals remains a World Cup record, came from Morocco and Zinedine Zidane, arguably the greatest French footballer, was born in Marseille to Algerian parents. He was the hero of France’s World Cup-winning team 20 years ago whose success was hailed as a powerful and inspiring rejection of racism in French society.
However, the players who lead the French side to win the world cup don’t want to be seen as anything other than French, for reasons that go back to the founding of the French Republic. Before the French Revolution, a person’s “Frenchness” was typically seen as deriving from their Gallo-Roman ancestry. But the changing demographics and evolving mentality of French people during the politically tumultuous 18th century meant that French people had to be defined, and united, by more than just a common ancestry. The future of the French nation-state was at stake.
The Republican model, developed mainly by the Jacobins, gave the French a unified identity “derived, functionally, from a voluntary commitment to common political values and a common fate,” according to William Safran , author of State, Nation, National Identity, and Citizenship: France as a Test Case. To unite French people into a functional nation-state, it was necessary to create a notion of people hood based on common values and an adherence to the Republican ideal. Ethnic and religious differences were meant to be transcended by the common identity of Frenchman. The French Revolution sealed this new identity. That’s where the difference between multiculturalists states like the US and assimilationist states like France really comes in. The Jacobin Universalist definition of the French national identity promises to allow people freedom from differences; if everyone is French first, and then everyone is equal. The “melting-pot,” multiculturalist American model allow people the freedom to be different, but still be American.
Of course, France has sometimes failed to uphold its ideals. Jews were not given full citizenship until the convocation of the Great Sanhedrin by Napoleon in 1807, and even then, their rights were rescinded during World War II by the Vichy regime. During the colonialist era, France attempted to force the assimilation of people in countries like Tunisia and Algeria into the French Republican model. But like the US, the French national project is a constantly evolving work in progress. And in France, considering the French national soccer players as anything other than French on the basis of their race is perceived as offensive. Unlike the United States of America, France does not refer to their citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To them, there is no hyphenated identity, roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team, it seems one is denying their Frenchness. This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.