The France team that won the 1998 World Cup was hailed as a symbol of a new harmonious multiracial nation. But now the country is racked by riots and football has become a racial battleground. Andrew Hussey, in Paris, speaks to the heroes of the World Cup-winning team and traces how the dream of 98 became a nightmare of violence and fear
It is now less than eight years since Didier Deschamps, the stand-in captain of the France football team, held the World Cup before an exultant crowd in the Stade de France. But the triumph of his team, such a symbol of progressive multiculturalism, seems already to belong to another era. This much was clear to me on a cold night in early March this year in the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris. I was there to watch Paris Saint-Germain take on Olympique de Marseille, in the so-called Derby de France, which is traditionally the biggest and most hard-fought event in the French footballing calendar.
There is a long history of rivalry and, more latterly, violence between their supporters, who between them represent the two polarities of French life: the hard-headed metropolitan arrogance of Paris and the freewheeling, exhibitionism of the Mediterranean south. This collision is celebrated in one of PSG's terrace chants - one of the oldest football songs in the canon - which is sung to the tune of the 'Marseillaise' and includes the lines 'Allons, enfants du Grand Paris ... Qu'un sang Marseillais abreuve nos sillons' ('Let's go, children of Great Paris/Let Marseillais blood flow through our terraces').
Around the Parc des Princes, the PSG fans of all races paraded coffins on the terraces, threw flares and sang of their hatred of the Marseillais. But there seemed to be more to this than mere footballing rivalry. The atmosphere was sour and strange, and the crowd was ready at any point to begin fighting. Here was a nation divided over football, but also much more besides.
How different it all was from that July evening in 1998 when, in a packed home stadium and fighting against a sultry heat, the French team had beaten Brazil 3-0 to become champions of the world. Most importantly, and for the first time, the French, who invented the idea of a World Cup competition, had overcome their historical footballing destiny as stylish losers and were outright winners.
Most remarkable of all in the hours that followed the match was the way in which an entire country, which until now had rarely taken pride in its sporting heroes, came together in celebration. The Champs Elysées was awash with beer and champagne as all races and social classes danced and drank until dawn. Almost without exception, French people of a certain age now refer to the match in the Stade de France as the defining moment of their late 20th century.
It was clear to non-French observers at the time that the victory represented more than a mere sporting success. The 1990s were miserable in France. Rising unemployment, industrial unrest, racial violence in the suburbs and the spectre of Islamist terrorism in the heart of the city (Parisians experienced deadly attacks long before anyone else in Europe - in 1995 a bomb attack by Algerian militants on the metro left eight dead) had made the country tense and fractious. The media were united in their despair over the 'malaise française'. The reported wisdom was that the only sensible destination for any French person under 30 was New York or, failing that, London, where Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism at least secured a job and an income.
Last summer, I worked on a BBC2 documentary about French football called Black, White and Blue. The first question we asked all the players we interviewed was how they had felt at the time of the victory; almost all of them said that they could not possibly have understood its significance. Even Zinedine Zidane, who scored two goals in the final to become an icon of the multiracial French nation, said that he could not remember much more than the crowds following the bus and his own amazement. Thierry Henry, who was the new kid to the squad at 20 years old, still recalls, wide-eyed, an elderly French woman thanking him for giving the nation its greatest moment since the Liberation. 'That's when I realised how powerful sport is,' he said, 'even if I don't completely understand it.'
One thing was clear enough: the World Cup victory was the antidote to the French 'malaise'. For the first time in French cultural history, a sporting event had brought the nation together in a manner that more than matched England's own moment of glory in the summer of 1966. This sense of national unity had a special resonance in France, which for a long time has been the most racially divided country in Europe. The team that had won the World Cup was, in sharp contrast, celebrated as the 'Rainbow team' - bringing together so many players whose origins lay outside France. Striker Youri Djorkaeff was of Armenian descent; Lilian Thuram, the team's elegant defender, was born in the small town of Pointe-à-Pitre in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe; left-back Bixente Lizarazu was Basque; midfielder Patrick Vieira was born in Dakar, Senegal. The central image of the long night of celebration that followed the match was of the face of Zidane - who is of Algerian origin - being lit up in red, white and blue across the Champs-Élysées under the rubric 'Zidane Président'.
The victory was hailed as the beginning of a new era in French cultural life. The new tolerance and comradeship was known as 'L'Effet Zidane'. Politicians were quick to spot a trend: even Jacques Chirac, a haughty classical bourgeois of the right, wore the colours of his national team; on the left, the former Minister for Culture, Jack Lang, known mostly for highbrow tastes and disdain for proletarian culture, said that he had dreamed of such a moment throughout his career.
Eight years is a long time in international football as it is in French domestic politics. France played well to win the 2000 European Championships, snatching victory from Italy in the final, with a Golden Goal from substitute David Trézeguet that belatedly confirmed their billing as the best team in the competition.
That victory was, in effect, the beginning of the end of the new order. The national team would soon fragment into a group of drab mediocrities and, worse still, the illusion of a multiracial team as the reflection of a multiracial society was destroyed during a violent so-called friendly between France and Algeria in 2001. This was the first time that the two countries had ever met on the football pitch; it was meant to signal a new maturity in the relationship between the former colony (Algeria) and its arrogant overlord (France). It was scheduled a few weeks after the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York. During the match Zidane and other players were insulted as traitors to Islamic youth. Throughout the game chants were heard in favour of Osama bin Laden from kids waving Algerian flags and the match ended in the 75th minute with a violent pitch invasion. Zidane would later describe that match to me as 'the worst day in my career'.
Since then, the French have struggled to make an impact on the international stage. In the 2002 World Cup, under Roger Lemerre, the former assistant coach who had supported Aimé Jacquet in the 1998 campaign and led the team to victory in the European Championships of 2000, France failed to score a single goal and finished at the bottom of a poor group. A similar impotence marked their performance in Euro 2004 where, under new manager Jacques Santini, they lost in the quarter-finals to the dogged but talent-free Greeks. This debacle was followed by a series of retirements from the international game by Thuram, Claude Makelele and the great Zidane.
Under the uncertain guidance of new coach Raymond Domenech, the team has since limped through to World Cup qualification in a succession of dour, low-scoring matches against the likes of Israel, Cyprus and Faroe Islands. There have been rumours of dressing-room stand-offs and a players' revolt (led by Robert Pires).
In an echo of the furore surrounding Glenn Hoddle's period as England manager, Domenech, who once had ambitions as an actor, has been mocked by the press for his interest in astrology. The return of Zidane to the team in the summer of 2005 was supposed to herald a return to form; in reality, his inconsistent presence on the pitch serves merely as a sign of Domenech's weakness and as a reminder that the present squad is a shadow of the team that won the World Cup. In the wake of the humiliating home defeat by Slovakia at the Stade de France last month, I watched aghast at the press conference as Domenech spluttered yet another high-pitched and defensive explanation for a fiasco he himself had created. 'This was not a disappointment,' he said. 'In fact, I am satisfied. We should not think of it as a defeat.'
Such self-righteousness from an England manager would have provoked calls for his dismissal. More disturbingly, there is a feeling on the part of both players and fans that there is something rotten at the heart of French football. This sentiment was captured in a recent cartoon for the influential sports daily L'Équipe, which showed black clouds gathering over Paris and the Stade de France. The cartoonist depicted the enemies of French football as 'hypocrisy', 'violence', 'racism' and - the largest and most dangerous cloud of all - 'connerie', a colourful French insult, a staple of everyday life, which best translates as 'wilful, dumb-ass stupidity'.
It is a common mistake to think that the French care less about their football than the English. The glorious victory of 1998 is every bit as important in the French psyche as England's victory in 1966 is to every English fan. However, in contrast to England since the arrival of the Premiership, football is still largely a working class and immigrant obsession and match-going an urban phenomenon. This, in part, explains its near-invisibility in the higher echelons of the media and the rarefied indifference of most politicians when it comes to the sport of 'prolos' and 'beaufs' (a word that roughly means 'chavs').
Certainly, the time when top politicians wrapped themselves in the colours of the French football team is gone. These days the game is treated mostly with contempt and usually as a social problem; in the build-up to the PSG-Marseille match the press and television gave incessant dire warnings about the threat of violence, comparing the confrontation unfavourably with the rugby now regularly played at the Stade de France before an audience of middle class families. The media image of football in France, perhaps more than ever before, is the spectacle of drunken, pointless violence organised and led by racaille and casseurs - 'scum' and 'wreckers' - these terms were used by politicians and the press to describe the instigators of the disturbances of late 2005 and now the new wave of football hooligans.
The football authorities are unanimous, however, in their refusal to see that the causes of the violence may indeed be the responsibility of those who treat the game and its supporters with such contempt. Among the players, Thuram, one of the pillars of the great team of 1998, is one of the few to speak in defence of the fans. 'Violence is never gratuitous,' he said recently. 'It always comes from somewhere. I am part of the community that the government calls "scum". It's too easy to blame one group and ignore the real problems.'
All of this seemed very distant six months ago as I sat in the late summer sunshine at the elegant entrance to Clairefontaine - the headquarters of the French Football Association, an hour away from southern Paris. BBC producer Francis Whately and I were there to meet Aimé Jacquet for our BBC2 documentary Black, White and Blue. Jacquet was charming and avuncular until, that was, we began to discuss the vexed issue of race.
In 1996, Jean-Marie le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, described the French football team as 'artificial' because it was made up of too many black and Arab faces from former French colonies and too few pure-blooded white Gauls. Thierry Henry's response to the question of race, when we spoke to him, had been to dismiss its significance and to declare that le Pen had 'been born in the wrong century'. But ever the malicious opportunist, le Pen had with his remarks slyly and deliberately evoked memories of the Algerian war, the conflict between France and its former colony that led to Algeria's independence in 1962. The war remains a cause of much bitterness in France, particularly in the volatile suburbs.
'Look,' says Jacquet, '40 years ago, I was a soldier in the French army and fought in the Algerian war. I fought honourably for my country, as Algerians fought for their cause. I never thought that I would be a football manager, let alone that I would win the World Cup, or manage such a brilliant team. The world changed. To be honest, we as a team never even thought about it or talked about it. It wasn't worth the effort. I was just personally disappointed that a politician should say such things. Sport is played with companions - and it is therefore naturally all about integration. Some people don't want that, but that's their problem.'
Jacquet points out that all postwar France football teams have been 'multicultural'. The first two great stars of the French game were Raymond Kopa, the son of Polish immigrants to the north of France, and Just Fontaine, who was born in Marrakesh of Spanish origins and who began his career with US Casablanca. They both played for Stade de Reims (Kopa moved on to the great Real Madrid of Alberto Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskás) and reached the peak of their careers in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, where France came third, losing only to the eventual champions, Brazil.
The next great French team, which reached the semi-finals of the 1982 World Cup, was coached by Michel Hidalgo and captained by Michel Platini. This too, Jacquet points out, was a team of immigrants. Many of the players were from Italian or Spanish families and the side included Jean-Amadou Tigana, whose family were from Mali. 'The real problem for the French team in historical terms is not race,' Jacquet says, 'but the fact that, as in 1982, they play beautiful football and then give up. My job in 1998 was to reverse this trend. I knew that we could do it but the team needed discipline to keep going.'
Jacquet is sympathetic to Domenech, who was appointed on his recommendation. 'It is not easy to be the coach of a national side,' he says. 'It was only when I was doing the job that I realised how difficult it can be, and how it is about more than football. It is too easy to blame Domenech - who, we must remember, has not yet failed.'
Jacquet is at his most animated when discussing his old team and especially his star player, Zidane. 'At the beginning of the 1998 competition, Zidane hadn't yet acquired the great influence he can bring to a game. He played for himself, for enjoyment, but he didn't have the team in him. What I tried to do was to give him a facility, a tranquillity, which would take him to the international level. With calmness, he gained confidence and started to make space for everyone else. That's when I started to think we could win the tournament.'
If the survivors of the great French team of '98 are united by anything it is that they still revere, in public and private, their talismanic leader Zidane, the Arab lad from the ghetto La Castellane who became an international superstar. 'Zidane is pretty simple as a character,' says Henry. 'He's so generous, on the pitch and off it. Yes, he is shy, but you know he can do things with his feet that some people can't even do with their hands. Sometimes when he plays the ball it seems like he is dancing. I can talk about Zizou for a long time, but the most important thing is that he is really down to earth and sometimes he is annoyed that people treat him like a star. To this, he says, it's just playing football. This normality is his main strength.'
For Marcel Desailly, whose own family origins are in Ghana, the extraordinary facet of Zidane's character is that, although he emerged from a tough background in one of the most deprived urban ghettoes of France, he still takes pride in his racial heritage. 'The World Cup made Zidane a star and an icon,' Desailly says. 'But that was because he was a very intelligent man who knows how to make sacrifices for the team. He has Algerian origins - and it is even more difficult to be an Algerian rather than a black man in France - and the problem is that no one knows how much his origins affect his playing ability. He doesn't talk about it much. I don't even know if he is fluent in Arabic, or just puts together a few words. But he was lucky to have a family who gave him a very wholesome and beautiful education. It taught him humility and motivation, and that comes through in the man he is today.'
My own impression of Zidane, when I interviewed him for this magazine at the Real Madrid training camp in June 2004, was that he was genuinely modest and also one of the most graceful men I had ever encountered. He conducted himself in conversation as he does on the pitch, with a steely precision and elegance that is both artful and disarming. Despite the warnings I had been given from his agent about his reluctance to discuss race, politics and culture, he was notably candid when talking about Marseille, Algeria, racism, Arab rap music and his family.
According to those who have been close to him since then, little seems to have changed in the intervening years, except that his hunger for international football glory has returned. More problematic is the question of his status as a role model for racial integration in France. When I first met Zidane he described himself happily as an Algerian and a Frenchman. He saw no conflict between those twin identities. 'I love my family and my background,' he said. 'I am proud to be an Algerian who lives in France, and proud to be French. I have tried to show that, in this country, you can come from a difficult environment and still achieve success.'
In recent interviews, however, despite calling for a huge vote against le Pen in 2002, he has stopped talking about race and politics. For Black, White and Blue, he spoke about everything except his social background as 'Yazid', the kid from the ghetto and a despised racial minority. Those who know Zidane well - notably his mates from the Marseilles suburb of La Castellane - claim that he is not at all the saintly figure of popular portrayal; that he is still pretty much the same hard-nut who had to survive the streets of a quartier difficile (the official French term for socially deprived suburban areas) before making his way in the world.
His agents and minders work hard, however, to preserve the protective wall around him and these days avoid especially any discussion of the race issue. Perhaps they are right to do so. In the volatile world of French racial politics in the early 21st century it is probably better to say nothing at all rather than be caught up in a struggle between forces you can neither control nor understand.
Since I last spoke to Aimé Jacquet, French football has continued to struggle. It is perhaps one of the toughest periods the game has ever known in France. The national team is in visible decline, gates are falling fast (after a surge in the wake of 1998, gate receipts are down by nearly 20 per cent since 2001, according to a recent report) and hooliganism is rife. At all levels - with the exception of Gérard Houllier's Lyon, with their mainly Francophone African and Brazilian players - the game is in deep crisis.
This, at least, is the predominant view on the terraces of the Parc des Princes. 'Football in France is a joke,' says lifelong PSG supporter Eric Pothion as we wait in the sub-zero temperatures for the kick-off against Marseille. 'It's an insult to true fans. But that is the same throughout French football. The fans are not important. Only money and power count now.' This is not just the view of the fans - a commonly held view across the world - but also of those in power and authority. 'We have reached the bottom of the barrel, the end of the road,' was the headline in L'Équipe before the PSG-Marseille match.
But things can always get worse. What better example of this than the circumstances surrounding the match we were waiting to see. In recent years this encounter has been noted for the violence before and after the match rather than as a footballing spectacle. In the days before the match, the chairman of Olympique Marseille, Pape Diouf, had declared that the Parc des Princes was 'unsafe' for Marseille supporters, because of clashes between fans that had marked recent matches between the two teams. He advised fans not to travel to the match. Most insultingly, he declared that he would not be sending the first team to Paris but inexperienced reserves.
For the Parisians this was both an insult and an act of cowardice. Worse still, as the French Football Association blustered and vacillated, it sent out a clear signal that the powerful clubs could do exactly as they wished . In the event, the match itself was a 0-0 draw. The result was greeted as a triumph in Marseille but as a disgraceful piece of gamesmanship and deceit by the rest of French football.
The next day's newspapers, from L'Équipe to Le Figaro and Le Monde, were unanimous that it was no coincidence that the decline of the France team had occurred at the same time as a rise in violence at football matches throughout France. In his editorial in Le Figaro, deputy editor Yves Thréard made the point that French football hooligans were no longer the 'professional savages' of a few years back, but simply angry and disaffected youngsters who felt cheated on some deeper level about their lives and their own sense of insignificance. 'This is how football in France has become like warfare,' he wrote.
In 2003 the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy - a future presidential candidate and himself a fan of PSG - declared 'war against the hooligans' when a PSG fan was murdered after a match in Nice. Sarkozy has also sworn to clear the terraces of racial conflict. 'There is no place for war in the stadiums,' he has said repeatedly ever since.
Racial violence is particularly marked on the terraces of PSG's own ground where a civil war continues between two sets of supporters. These are the predominantly white 'Boulogne Boys' of the Boulogne Stand (who are alleged to have far-right links) and the mixed race and Arab fans, led by their 'president', Mehdi ben Slima, who call themselves 'Mystic Tigris' and who gather on the Auteuil terraces.
Sarkozy has had no more success in tackling violence inside the football stadiums than he has had in controlling the riots, car-burning and looting that erupted in the suburbs outside French cities late last year. These incidents, the so-called French intifada, are still occurring, if at a much lower level. The violence threatens to undermine the consensus that holds the state together (Sarkozy has, however, won the approval of le Pen who says that he 'applauds Sarkozy for dealing with these problems as they should be dealt with'). In frustration, and according to his critics almost in despair, Sarkozy has most recently called for a return to the footballing values of the mid-1990s - the now half-forgotten sense of multi-racial unity that was the original meaning of 'L'Effet Zidane'.
But multi-millionaire Zidane is no longer a role model for the disaffected young. 'Zidane is a fake,' one Arab PSG fan told me. 'His image is too pure. He is afraid to say what he is, that he is a beur [Parisian slang for Arab] like the rest of us. And to say the truth about what it is like to be an Arab in this society.' Other PSG supporters, Arab followers of 'Mystic Tigris', agree loudly that Zidane is an ad man's dream, a triumph of style. 'I support PSG because I am from Seine-Saint- Denis,' says Joey, a large black kid who looks as if he would be more at home in south central LA than in this cold, bleak stadium at the heart of one of the most bourgeois districts in Paris. 'But I don't care about Les Bleus, or Zidane. It's not my tribe.'
Football violence is such a relatively new and alien phenomenon in France and, because it is so obviously linked to the riots and disturbances in the suburbs, it is the source of much fascination among the middle classes.
But the issue of race alone does not explain everything about the recent upsurge in violence, in football and wider society. To the social theorist Marc Augé, the French cities - and in particular Paris - are now made up of 'non-spaces', shopping malls, car parks and business districts, which exclude those who, irrespective of race, do not have the money or social status to use them. This, he thinks, explains the rise of the new football hooligans. In the same vein, the architectural historian Paul Virilio wittily but despairingly describes how the city is no longer defined by its outer ring road but rather by anti-terrorist devices at the airports. The only appropriate response, both thinkers have concluded, is alienation or violent rebellion.
It is perhaps hardly surprising, then, that one of the bestselling books this year in France has been the semi-literate autobiography of a football hooligan called Thierry D, Confessions d'un hooligan. In the early Seventies, the Parisian philosopher Guy Debord, known mainly for his prophetic text The Society of the Spectacle, argued that football hooligans would be the vanguard of the coming proletarian revolution. But he was thinking mainly of English thugs. The French have found their own home-grown version much more baffling and terrifying. As such, Thierry D, still tattooed and usually hooded, has become a minor media celebrity, appearing regularly on television to explain why it is that he feels (or felt) the need to express his hatred of French society in football stadiums.
I was back in Paris a few weeks after the PSG-Marseille match, on the weekend of 18 March as the riots against the new working laws for young people reached a disturbing climax. There were political factions out on the street. But most noticeable were the groups of masked suburban youth, kids lighting petrol bombs and clashing with police in riot clothing, as if they were living out some reality video game. These were kids with no ideology and little education, the same kids you see selling drugs in Les Halles on Saturday afternoons, or on the terraces. They were all evidently relishing the chance of direct and violent contact with the authorities who, as they saw it, offered them no hope of a better, more integrated future.
How well will France do in Germany in June? In truth, the task facing the team in the World Cup is not just to make a decent attempt to win the Cup itself, but also to bring back something of the spirit of liberty, fraternity and equality that flickered so briefly and elusively across the Champs Elysées on that warm July night in 1998. For fans, players and politicians, there is suddenly much more at stake for the France team in Germany this summer than a mere football tournament.
· Andrew Hussey is head of French and comparative literature at the University of London in Paris (ULIP). His latest book, Paris: The Secret History, is published by Viking-Penguin in July. Black, White and Blue will be shown on BBC2 in May.
Death of a dream
1998 France, with two goals from Zinedine Zidane and one from Emmanuel Petit, beat Brazil 3-0 to win the World Cup in front of their home fans at Paris's Stade de France. The team is managed by Aime Jacquet. Five of the side that start the final are born outside the country.
2000 A late injury-time equaliser by Sylvain Wiltord, followed by a Golden Goal from David Trezeguet, gives France victory over Italy in the European championships in Belgium. They are the second country, after West Germany in 1974, to hold the European and world honours at the same time. Key players Laurent Blanc and Didier Deschamps announce their international retirements soon after.
2001 A friendly between France and Algeria, shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers, ends prematurely when fans, some of whom declare their support for Osama bin Laden, invade the pitch. The following April, National Front leader Jean-Marie le Pen, who had described the French World Cup-winning squad as 'artificial' because of the number of players born outside the country, goes through to the final round of the presidential elections with 17 per cent of the vote.
2004 Following on from their group-stage exit at the 2002 World Cup where they failed to score a goal, France lose to Greece, the eventual winners, in the quarter-finals of the European championships in Portugal. Jacques Santini, the coach, has already agreed to join Spurs and leaves straight after the tournament. Raymond Domenech is appointed in his place. The team's exit prompts the retirement of Zidane, Claude Makelele and Lillian Thuram.
2005 In November, Arab youths clash violently with the police in the Paris suburbs. Cars are burnt and more than 250 people are arrested. Five months later, Paris erupts again as students and other youths protest against proposed employment legislation.
2006 France lose a friendly at home to Slovakia 2-1 in March. The result comes on the back of an unimpressive World Cup qualifying campaign, in which France secured their place in Germany in June after winning only five of their 10 group games.