Algeria, France, Celebration and Identity

For the first time ever two African teams have qualified for the World Cup knockout stages and Algeria, who edged out Russia and South Korea in Group G, are one of them. Algerians at home and abroad celebrated les fennecs’ first time getting past the group stage but it is in France where the celebrations were most vocal, and disputed. Seventeen of Vahid Halilhodžić’s squad were born and raised in France, which is also home to the largest community of Algerian descent in the world. It is also Algeria’s former colonial power, which fought a bloody eight-year war against the FLN until Algeria finally secured its independence in 1963. Since then Algeria and Franco-Algerians have become a particular favourite whipping boy of the French far-right.

The nastier elements of French fascism had their eyes on Algerian fans from the off, spreading misinformation on Twitter after the Belgian game, misrepresenting a building in Algiers festooned in Algerian flags as being in Paris (and contrasting it to one in Hammersmith draped in England flags). They also posted photographs of upturned scooters and wheelie-bins that dated from last November. The far-right got what they wanted after the win over South Korea, when there were outbreaks of violence and vandalism in a few towns across France. The vast majority of Algerian fans celebrated festively and without breaking anything but there is often delinquency on the margins, something the far-right lap up. The jack-boot Bloc Identitaire, not so distant from the mainstream UMP, has made regular ‘patrouilles antiracailles’ (‘anti-scum patrols) on public transport across the country in recent months, dressing up in hi-vis jackets and explaining to puzzled commuters what it is they’re ‘protecting’ them from. Bloc Identitaire had planned another patrol in Lyon after the Algeria-Russia game “seeing as the police didn’t do their job on Sunday [after the South Korea match]” as one of them tweeted, but the police swiftly banned the planned action.

There were 74 arrests across France after the match, which is lower than you would have for Bastille Day or New Year’s Eve, but, as many people have reasonably pointed out, a lot for a football celebration, and no other team’s celebrations have degenerated in quite the same way. Still, it is a symptom of wider social problems and it’s hard to blame the majority of Franco-Algerians, much less the Algerian team, for it. For the far-right, of course, it is proof of the innate savagery of Algerians and of how much they hate France. This is the same far-right that hates the French national team and whose chief rag Minute had as its headline ‘voyou’ (thug) after Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on Marco Materazzi in 2006. Few people in France took so much pleasure in that defeat as the likes of the Front National, Bloc Identitaire and the far-right student organisation Uni.

A number of the French-born players on the Algerian team previously represented France at underage level but changed allegiance when the opportunities for the senior team became scarce. Algeria was one of the main associations to lobby for the change in FIFA rules to allow players to change countries after youth and under-21 level –– a sensible ruling, which has opened the field of international players up to many who might previously have had their paths blocked by an overabundance of talent (even a playmaker as brilliant as Johan Micoud had the misfortune to have his international career stunted by playing at the same time as Zidane). Much has been made of the September 2001 friendly between France and Algeria at the Stade de France, which was abandoned when Algerian fans invaded the pitch with France winning 4-1. It was notorious too for the shameful abuse of Zidane, the man whom most Franco-Algerians rightly revere. But that is half a generation ago at this point. True, there have been times since then, like friendlies at the Stade de France where the Marseillaise has been booed by French-born fans. It is something that has appalled most French people though the mostly teenage fans would say they did it just as a means of barracking the opposition. There is a gulf in understanding, something players such as Zidane and Lilian Thuram did their best to address in statements. This year, the tricouleur has also been conspicuous among jubilant Algerian fans, and most get behind France, and its Franco-Algerian talisman Karim Benzema, with equal gusto.

Often the gauche exuberance of youth can seem far more threatening than it is –– such as when a fairly non-malicious pitch invasion halted a pre-World Cup friendly against Romania in Geneva, prompting Halilhodžić to angrily call for the invasion to stop over the stadium PA (it did soon after). The convoys of beeping cars and scooters that drive through French towns and cities after Algerian successes can be a nuisance to some (particularly French people unused to loud exhibitions of joy) but it’s hard to begrudge those kids the kick they get from it (and Algerians or Maghrebins are far from the only communities to celebrate like that) especially when I know that Irish fans, both at home and in the diaspora, are just as boisterous in their celebrations. The look of joy in the face of friends, colleagues of Algerian origin and my building’s Algerian concierge also make the beeping horns at 3am all the easier to tolerate. While it’s unlikely to happen, if Algeria overcome Germany in the last 16 on Monday, it could set up a date with France in Rio the following Saturday. Should that happen, I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep that night.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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