When I moved to Paris in September 2010, I noticed that bookshops were full of newly released (and hastily written) titles about the national team. Ostentatiously wrapped in the famous bandeau rouge or red wrapper used by publishers to draw the eye of the potential purchaser, these books attempted to dissect the chaotic mess that had been France’s short-lived stint as participants in the 2010 World Cup. They were the football version of La Débâcle, Emile Zola’s damning indictment of France’s humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War – albeit with Raymond Domenech as a latter-day Napoléon III, and rather more wearing of hoodies and gigantic shades.
France’s South African meltdown in 2010 was, perhaps, not so fundamentally important for the future course of European history as the country’s collapse in 1870. However, just as the loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany haunted the French national psyche until 1918, so the apparent humiliation of 2010 has loomed large over French preparations for subsequent international tournaments.
In the run-up to Euro 2012, the Fédération française de football (FFF) was keen to move on from 2010 by promoting an image of unity and harmony among both squad and management. In order to do so, they turned to what was supposed to unite them all, both on and off the pitch – the language and imagery of the French republic. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the ostensibly rather odd launch of France’s new kit (Le Shirt, if you will). Members of both the men’s and women’s squads processed into the riding school of the Garde républicaine in Paris, accompanied by mounted members of the Garde and soundtracked by a sedate, old-fashioned musical accompaniment provided by the band of the Garde républicaine.
(By way of comparison, here’s how the 2010 England away kit was launched – curiously enough also in Paris, but during a Kasabian gig. The boos from miffed/confused Parisians are audible – miffed that someone thought launching an England jersey in France was a good idea, and possibly confused because Kasabian lead singer Tom Meighan had avowed his support for the Republic of Ireland just a few months before.)
The juxtaposition of national team with the Garde républicaine, who are usually seen accompanying the president of the Republic and politicians, sent out a clear message. The team were representatives of France, and symbols of republican unity. To really ram it home, each jersey had the words Nos différences nous unissent (Our differences unite us) inscribed in flowing script just inside the back collar.
To me, the whole thing smacked of the French republican language of la république indivisible, the ‘indivisible republic.’ The constitution of June 1793, written after the establishment of the First Republic in 1792, opened with the words ‘The French Republic is one and indivisible’, and this language of unquestioned unity has been part of the terminology of republican France ever since.
That said, anyone with a knowledge of modern French history will soon spot the irony of a constitution written in June 1793, just as the revolutionary Terror and the attendant guillotine were really getting going, proclaiming that the Republic was ‘one and indivisible.’ There has always been a tendency among those establishing the various incarnations of the French Republic to insist on a sense of absolute unity even when the country was quite obviously tearing itself apart. As a result, there always seems to be a point when the façade falls.
Arguably, it’s hard to point to a moment in 2012 when anyone genuinely believed in the FFF’s presentation of the national squad as diligent, dutiful représentants de la nation. Even before they got to Poland and the Ukraine they’d had (as Russell Williams has already pointed out) the infamous ‘Nasri smirk’ during the singing of ‘La Marseillaise’. Yet again, France’s run in an international tournament was largely ignominious, with les Bleus crashing out in the quarter finals after a 2-0 defeat to Spain. Rumours circulated of yet more dressing room conflicts, and France’s final game was most notable for Nasri’s sweary post-match outburst to journalists.
As France heads for Brazil, in recent weeks there has been renewed speculation as to whether the squad has been up to its usual conflict-ridden tricks, with potentially lethal consequences for their hopes of success. Didier Deschamps’ decision to leave Samir Nasri out of his squad rapidly resulted in a foul-mouthed Twitter rant from Nasri’s girlfriend, Anara Atanes (‘Fuck france and fuck deschamps! What a shit manager!’) and an equally rapid response from both Deschamps and the FFF, who are taking Atanes to court.
For France, therefore, it seems that remaining une et indivisible and getting through this tournament without an internal bust-up – and in so doing shaking off the spectres of 2010 and 2012 – would be as much a victory as actually managing to win the Cup.
Posted by Laura O’Brien