Another Sneak Peek from Protesting on Bended Knee: Soccer, Spectacle, and Protest in a Global Context

On Sunday afternoon, Eric Burin appeared on Jack Weinstein’s Why? Radio show to discuss his forthcoming volume with the The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century AmericaCheck out the interview here.

While Colin Kaepernick’s protests might appear to represent a distinctly American expression of dissent, it is important to recognize that the public profile of athletes and the spectacle of sport has offered a significant venue for protests around the world. Protesting on Bended Knee, includes a contribution by Andrew Wegmann on protests and soccer, and with the men’s World Cup heading to the semi-finals this week, it seemed like a fitting time to offer another sneak peek from the volume.

Some have called the French side the last remaining African team in recognition that 12 of its 23 players are of African descent. The praise accorded to this team on account of its diversity, however, is dampened by the rise in France of xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia. Indeed, this is not the first time the French squad has sparked national debates over race, religion, and immigration, and those earlier disputes, in turn, prompted disagreements over which protest tactics would best ensure that the country sustained its commitment to “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

In his contribution to Protesting on Bended Knee, historian Andrew Wegmann analyzes a 2001 soccer match in Paris between France and its former colony of Algeria, an event that was supposed to represent a reconciliation between the two countries and the advent of a welcoming, tolerant “New France”; but the game was disrupted by Algerian immigrants who stormed the field, prompting France’s star player Lilian Thuram, himself a black immigrant from Martinique, to lash out at them, not because, as some naysayers carped, they had unpatriotically betrayed the nation, but rather on account of what Thuram deemed their immature, counterproductive protest methods.

“They Will Use This Against You”:
The Context and Legacy of the 2001 France vs. Algeria Protests

Andrew N. Wegmann, Delta State University

It started with the second song. As the players lined up on October 6, 2001, as is customary in any international friendly, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. First came the Algerian national anthem, Kassaman (“We Pledge”), a song of revolution, pride, and virtuous dedication to a homeland granted independence in 1962 but claimed for centuries. Green and white flags waved. Thousands sang, “Fa-shaddü! Fa-shaddü!” (“Bear witness! Bear witness!”) as the music came to an end and cheers, whistles, and applause filled the air. Then came the home anthem, it too a revolutionary song, but from 170 years earlier than its predecessor. As the drums rolled in preparation, red, white, and blue flags waved, the team clad in blue shirts and white shorts, a coq sportif newly crowned with a single cherished star on each left breast, stood together, arms linked. This was the hymn of the revolution that created this team, this stadium, this match, and, in a strange and tragic way, the day’s opponent.

“Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!”

The first notes of the French revolutionary march, La Marseillaise, met an unexpected chorus. Instead of the resounding chant, “Allons enfants de la Patrie,” (“Onward children of the fatherland”), deep tones formed in the crowd, broken by whistles and jeers, quickly overcoming the hum of players and fans singing along. This was not supposed to happen, the faces of the players betraying a universal confusion, turning their heads to each other then back to the crowd. National anthems were and remain sacred in international football. They represent the individuality of states, their players, and the fans and citizens who give it all meaning. Usually met with powerful, complimentary silence, the ritual of mutual respect that night went wrong. Something had changed, but no one on the field knew exactly what. This type of protest simply did not fit the scene.

“Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!”

La Marseillaise finished, the chorus of boos shifted to supportive joy, the captains met, shook hands, exchanged gifts, and the game began. But something was off. The match, indeed, had a purpose far beyond an exhibition between two vastly unequal sides—the French had won the most recent World Cup in 1998 and were the number one ranked team in the world, Algeria sat at 80th, having failed even to qualify for each of the last three World Cups. No one expected Algeria to score, much less win. And in the end, France emerged the victor by a 4-1 score line. But that was not the point. The match was organized as a statement of solidarity and binding wounds. Until 1962, when Kassaman became the Algerian national anthem, the country sat beneath the yoke of the French colonial empire. For seven full years, the Algerians fought for their independence against a French force brutal in its desire to retain the prized North African colony.

The war, fought between 1954 and 1962, served as fuel for a wider anti-colonial discourse that ultimately brought about the collapse of European colonialism on the African continent. It gave rise to some of the most profound and influential thinkers of the twentieth century—Frantz Fanon, Thomas Sankara, Aimé Césaire, and others. Perhaps most importantly, though, it created a relationship between France and Algeria that neither, it seemed, wanted to have. Because the fighting took place entirely in Algeria, refugees of the violence sought shelter in the colonial metropole of France, a nation that never entirely accepted them as its own but could not justly turn them away.

The match between the two nations in October 2001, then, stood as a reconciliation of sorts, an attempt at finding a common language and a common cause between nations once linked only by force. “A football game, chosen voluntarily, requires a kind of pacification in the relationship,” anthropologist Christian Bromberger told the French newspaper L’Humanité. “You don’t play a football game against a country you are at war with.”[1] A month prior, two airliners hijacked by terrorists declaring jihad against the United States slammed into the World Trade Center in New York, killing more than 2,600 people in the worst terrorist attack in modern U.S. history. The world, it seemed, recognized the tragedy as an opportunity to make change and come to grips with differences allowed to fester too long with others. The France-Algeria match was supposed to do just that—reconcile the violent, oppressive past and share the excitement and friendship only football could bring.

The peace lasted 76 minutes. France, led by French talisman, Zinedine Zidane, the French-born son of two Algerian refugees, and the black Martinique-born defender Lilian Thuram, had hoisted the World Cup trophy in that same stadium just three years earlier. Indeed, the 3-0 victory over Brazil in the World Cup final in Paris was a watershed moment for France as a whole. A team made up of immigrants and children of immigrants, nearly half of African descent, conquered the world of football for a nation that just a single generation before would have never recognized them as their own. This, it seemed, was the “New France” journalists celebrated in the streets that night. “There was no more red light, no bus lane, no forbidden direction,” Annick Cojean famously wrote in Le Monde. “No more social classes, provincials, banlieusards. Nothing but the extraordinary, like a world turned upside down….It was madness Paris, laughter Paris, delirious Paris. Paris the brothel. Paris the joyful. Paris the loving…colored and multi-colored, fraternal.”[2]

France was still riding this high when the first of “pitch invaders” arrived on the field. Exactly 31 minutes into the second half, with Algeria on the attack, defender Moulay Haddou streaking up the left flank, a young man, clad in red and waving a white flag, sprints across the field followed by docents, stumbling desperately behind him. From the right, another makes his start. Then another, this time from the opposite touchline. Then another, and another, and another, each one simply running, some waving flags, all refusing to leave. Within two minutes the field was a chaotic mess, an anthill disturbed from above, each colorful dot a young man of Algerian descent running aimlessly so long as the match did not continue.

2001 (October 6) France 4-Algeria 1 (Friendly).avi - YouTube 2018-07-10 06-14-07.jpg

Both teams, fearful and confused, quickly abandoned the match and left the field. But Lilian Thuram, the tall, dark French defender and public advocate for immigrants’ rights, remained, his face twisted with rage, his finger lifted in accusation just inches from the chest of a young Algerian “invader” now startled with fear. He screams furiously at the teenager, maintaining eye contact as docents and minders pull him away and down the tunnel to the locker room.[3] The match was not supposed to end this way. There should never have been any boos or jeers. There should never have been any invaders. This was football. This was sacred. This was the New France, the “colored and multi-colored” France. This was “Paris the joyful, Paris the loving.” What had become of this holy place, this nation of one, this reconciliation of past ills? As the commentators screamed of respect and shame, the embarrassment they believed the “invaders” ought to feel, and as the Algerian sports minister calmly declared, “This has nothing to do Algeria,” the Algerian players smiled and took pictures with Zidane in the tunnel, their national hero clad in the French kit.

2001 (October 6) France 4-Algeria 1 (Friendly).avi - YouTube 2018-07-10 06-12-05.jpg

The protest that day had a strange feel to it, as though the point was not entirely clear. Lilian Thuram’s fury as he left the field became a symbol of several sides—anger at the “invaders,” frustration with the effects of the protest itself, an expression of the pent up isolation that led to the protests in the first place. The next day, it was Thuram who graced the front pages of Le Monde, L’Equipe, and other national newspapers. Regardless of individual position, the entire nation seemed to balk at a universal reaction. Indeed, many French viewers feared that politics would get in the way, the French Right increasingly arguing for a more closed off France, the Left seeking to open borders to former colonies and repent, at least in theory, for the damage done in the past.

Thuram, oddly, stood at the center, though he had nothing to do with the protest. A black native of Martinique, Thuram was something of a spokesman for the World Cup-winning team of 1998, taking every opportunity he could to point out and celebrate the diverse roots of the squad. He rightly took offense when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and leader of the Right-wing Front National, attributed the World Cup victory to “Les Noirs” (the blacks) rather than to France.[4] And he feared that this same sentiment would seep into the events he had just witnessed in Paris. Indeed, Thuram’s response to the protests, when it came to light, was a bit unexpected, at least to those who interviewed him after the fact.

While white French commentators lamented the “betrayal” committed by the “Algerian thugs” who invaded the pitch at the Stade de France, Thuram saw “idiots…ruining everything.”[5] But he did not see betrayal. He saw immaturity, yes, but no ill motives. In fact, Thuram knew exactly why the young Algerians interrupted the match and jeered La Marseillaise that night. He too had felt the way they felt—shut off from a nation that did not allow them to be who and what they were expected to be, former “colonials” not part of France but irrevocably, and to some innately, tethered to it. When he won the World Cup for his nation, he became un noir, rhetorically and physically distanced from the Gallic nation whose jersey he wore, whose language he spoke, and whose anthem he sang.

The young, French-born Algerians whose arms he grabbed, whose stunned faces glared back at him on the field in October 2001, were in some ways more his compatriots than the white Frenchmen sitting peacefully and apolitically in the stands, or even who shared the field with him that night. Thuram knew well the feeling of the colonized. He knew that La Marseillaise said nothing about him or his people, however they were and are defined. He was black. His blood came from Africa, not France. The words of his nation’s anthem and the rhetoric of its politicians explicitly rejected this type of sang impur (impure blood) and celebrated its letting. Even as Thuram screamed in anger at the stunned protestors, themselves a different color than him, he did not scream words of hatred or denial. He did not reject their sentiment or the point they were trying to make. He only rejected the way they acted and the fuel it would give to those most likely to act in response.

As he grabbed the “little idiot’s” arm and placed his finger inches from his face, Thuram condemned nothing. He knew they both had the wrong audience, but he could not contain his fury with everything that had led to that moment. “Do you realize what you are doing?” he yells, smacking the protestor’s cheek with his palm. “Do you realize that television is filming you, that you are throwing yourself into shit, and pushing all your friends there too?” Thuram’s eyes never leave the boy’s face.[6] He knew what the kid meant. He knew what he wanted to say. He knew that he wanted to be on TV, seen by those who treated him still as a colonized subject in the nation of his birth. But Thuram thought that maybe this idealistic teenager, wild with the adrenaline of doing something you know is socially improper but needs to be done, did not realize the actual result this protest would cause. Thuram knew. He had lived it for 29 years, a black man in a white man’s country. And as docents and minders pried him away from his own youth before him, he made his final point to the young man: “They will use this against you!” he yelled, turning to the tunnel where his teammates waited, taking pictures and joking with their former opponents.[7] The match was over.


[1] Christian Bromberger, interviewed by François Escarpit, “Le foot a toujours eu des fonctions ambiguës et contradictoires,” L’Humanité, October 6, 2001, quoted in Laurent Dubois, Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 201.
[2] Annick Cojean, “A la Bastille, un 14 juillet «en plus drôle»,” Le Monde, July 14, 1998.
[3] Footage of the pitch invasion can be seen here.
[4] Dubois, Soccer Empire, 2-5.
[5] “Fans Force Abandonment of Watershed France v Algeria Match,” The Guardian, October 8, 2001; and Bruce Crumley, “Booing the Marseillaise: A French Soccer Scandal,” Time, October 15, 2008.
[6] Crumley, “Booing the Marseillaise,” Time, October 15, 2008; James Gheerbrant, “France: Fear, Faith and Football,” BBC News, June 8, 2016; and Dubois, Soccer Empire, 206.
[7] François Durpaire, France blanche, colère noire (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2006), 174-176; Lilian Thuram, 8 Juillet 1998 (Paris: Editions Anne Carrière, 2004), 161; and “Fans Force Abandonment of Watershed France v Algeria Match,” The Guardian, October 8, 2001.

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