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Responding with Rage

zidane_headbuttAn article I wrote at the time of the last World Cup in 2006 which resonates with racist nationalism as it is being played with respect to this year’s championship.

What is there left to say about Zinedine Zidane’s already infamous head-butt in the last minutes of the finals of the 2006 World Cup? Articles, blogs and bar room conversation have hashed and rehashed the French captain’s act. He has been damned a traitor and hailed a hero. He has been condemned, understood and forgiven. But the symbolic impact of his charge of rage, his head ramming into the chest of the Italian Matterazzi, “like a bull” (Liberation, July 11), is yet to be fully felt in France.

Many commentators have spoken about Zidane, the son of poor Algerian immigrants from La Castellane in the council houses of Marseille’s Quartier Nord. He is said to be understated, generally humbled by his stardom, unsure of what to do with the adulation that his football prowess has earned him. It is this that endeared him to everyone in France, except of course the supporters of the Front national’s Jean-Marie Le Pen who has repeatedly condemned the make-up of France’s ethnically mixed tricolor national team. The majority even forgive him for not singing the national anthem when it is played at the beginning of matches. He has been, until Sunday’s crucial trespassing, a symbol of all that liberal France hopes for the sons and daughters of the immigrants from the quartiers difficiles (literally the “difficult neighbourhoods of the ill-famed banlieues). He was held up as an example for the kids whose dream it is to become the Zizous of the future: keeping his head down and making a positive contribution to the Republic, rather than burning its schools and jeering at its police.

As several comments on the website of the campaigning organisation, Indigènes de la République ( have pointed out, the French press loves to remind us of Zidane’s Algerian Muslim origins. The intimation is that had he not become a football star he could easily have participated in the rioting by black and North African youth in the suburbs of France’s cities in November 2005. His victories for France, like those of his mainly black team mates, made his Muslimness acceptable and made all of France feel a little métisse. As long as the football was on. It is clear to France’s non-white population, which includes the largest number of Muslims in any European state, that such a feeling of identification with blacks and Arabs is absent from all spheres besides football. As one online commentator put it, if Zidane and his team of blacks and beurs hadn’t led France to the World Cup finals, they could have been one of the many young men of immigrant origin with higher education qualifications working shifts as security guards or drawing the dole.

Understanding has been relatively forthcoming in Zidane’s case. Despite his bad boy behaviour, he remains a national hero and beyond his FIFA sponsored statements against racism, he toes the marketing line as the face of Adidas shampoo. But what of November’s rioters or the anti-capitalist, anti-racist activists of the controversially named Mouvement des Indigènes de la République, making reference to France’s “native” African soldiers? The first have been written off as “scum” by French interior minister and presidential hopeful, Nicolas Sarkozy. The latter have been criticised for their analysis of French republican principles, such as secularism and integration, in terms of racism and neo-colonialism. Many among even the most liberal of mainstream French society lose their sense of multicultural affinity when confronted with violence or with open critique of a state constantly upheld to be the cradle of Human Rights.

What does Zidane’s head butt mean in a country struggling, and mainly failing, to understand what it means to be postcolonial? French commentary on multiculturalism, or integration as most prefer it, struggles for a route between recognising difference and stressing citizenship over community. In other words, French republican ideals dictate a strict separation between the public and private spheres. Citizens are free to observe religious or other minority allegiances at home. In public they must show no outward sign of difference, be it in dress (there is the law forbidding the wearing of religious symbols in public institutions) or speech and behaviour. In reciprocation, a system of meritocracy is promised. However, as the majority of those of non-white immigrant origin in France will attest, the system exists in name only. Those who come from low-income, marginalized neighbourhoods in the ghetto-like outer suburbs have very little chance of accessing calibre education and employment. Even when some succeed to win the highly sought-after places in elite schools and universities, rarely do they achieve the success in the job market that such qualifications would normally promise them.

While all of this is well-known, it cannot be openly admitted. French law forbids ethnic monitoring and even the discussion of difference is difficult in public discourse. Euphemisms such as “les jeunes” (the youth) are often used to mean young black and brown men. The disparity between the reality of discrimination and the discourse of liberty, equality and fraternity which continues to underpin French national myth-making is stark. If French people of immigrant background want to be called French, not Muslim or black, it is because the official discourse promises them that, due to the law of jus solis, they are nothing but citizens of the Republic. Yet despite the colour-blindness of the system, the otherness of those who are not white-skinned and of Christian origin, is constantly being reminded through the daily acts of discrimination that are a part of every “indigène’s” experience. The constant question on most of their lips is why they are forced to remind the country of the fact that they are citizens when this is all that they are officially permitted to be within a system that officially shuns difference, yet in fact reveals itself to be obsessed with it.

Like the November 2005 riots, Zidane’s head butt, very possibly in reaction to a racist comment made by his Italian opponent, was a cry of rage. While for most people, even among those who have forgiven him, his action was unprofessional and he should have remained controlled, for many brown and black French people his was the action of a man pushed one step too far. That breaking point is something that is instinctively understood by anyone who has been the victim of racial abuse. There are limits within which most are forced to operate daily for the sake of survival (it is impossible to beat up every racist taxi driver, employer or police man). But there is a moment when caution is thrown to the wind and even losing the World Cup is a fair price to pay for standing up and saying that a line has been crossed. Zinedine Zidane has been a footballing star and a working class hero. He has not struck me as either. I am neither a football fan nor was I impressed by his various endorsements of products the majority of his fans could ill-afford to buy. It is his “coup de boule” of Sunday night that drew my interest. Beyond football, Zidane is entering French history as a man who stood up to abuse. Whether or not Matterazzi’s comment was racist, the belief that it was and that Zidane refused to ignore it, will stand as a testament to what the sons and daughters of France’s immigrants must do to be recognised. Whether with fists (or heads) or, preferably, words and non-violent actions the time has come for them to be heard.

Alana Lentin