The political crisis provoked in France by the impressive performance of the Algerian team in the World Cup testifies to the explosive social tensions gripping French society, and the impact of decades of incitement of anti-Muslim racism by the ruling elite.
In France's suburbs, where youth of immigrant origins face constant clashes with police, Algerian victories led to festivities, the burning of cars, and police arrests. Some 30 people were arrested on June 22 in celebrations after the Algerian team won their match against South Korea, and 74 on June 26 after the draw with Russia meant that Algeria, for the first time in the history of the World Cup, moved on to the last 16 of the competition.
The arrests were seized upon by the ruling Socialist Party (PS) and various right-wing parties to mount a crackdown on expressions of pro-Algerian sentiment during the Cup.
In an interview in 20 Minutes commenting on incidents after Algeria’s matches, sociologist Laurent Mucchielli noted: “Seventy-four arrests is not nothing, but on a national scale they are just isolated incidents. Outbursts of violence around sporting events are legion…not just with matches where the Algerian team is playing.”
“The political and media treatment of these incidents is out of proportion,” he added. “The Ministry of the Interior wants to show that it has matters in hand.”
In towns throughout France, including Paris with its PS-dominated council, the councils mounted giant screens for public viewings of the France-Nigeria match, which started at 6pm. However, they refused to show the Algeria-Germany match four hours later—despite the enormous interest in the Algerian team in France, the former colonial power in Algeria, which is home to 2.5 to 4 million people of Algerian origin.
Neo-fascist National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen demanded on i-T é l é “an end now to dual nationality,” which many Algerians living in France have. She also called for the halting of immigration, the end to the automatic right to French nationality of people born in France, and the expulsion to their country of origin of people who have been sentenced for crimes.
Christian Estrosi, the conservative UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) mayor of Nice, decreed the banning of the “ostentatious display of foreign flags” in the town centre for the duration of the World Cup in order to “maintain public order and peace.” He also banned the display of foreign flags at weddings in Nice.
Estrosi’s action has historical as well as political significance. The display of an Algerian flag in 1945 during a parade in Sétif, Algeria celebrating the end of the Second World War led to the massacre of some 20,000 Algerians by the French army. This crime was the prelude to even greater killings and mass use of torture in France’s failed attempt to crush Algerian fighters in Algeria’s successful 1954-1962 war for independence.
As poverty and unemployment mount in France’s immigrant suburbs, and French imperialism launches ever more wars in Muslim countries, from Mali to Syria, the ruling elite is ever more acutely sensitive of the threat posed by anti-imperialist sentiment among the masses.
In the right-wing Le Figaro daily, Ivan Rioufol provocatively denounced Algerians for being insufficiently French: “Their parents rejected French Algeria, they want an Algerian France. Their flags brandished in the streets express a refusal to live together, if not a wish for anti-colonialism.”
For the French political establishment—which, from the far right to petty-bourgeois pseudo-left parties like the New Anti-capitalist Party, have all embraced French imperialist interventions in the Middle East and Africa—even a “wish for anti-colonialism” is an intolerable threat. It threatens to cut across the promotion of anti-Islamic sentiment that has become a cornerstone of the French ruling class’ policy to divide the working class and poison political life.
The 2003 law banning the Islamic headscarf and “ostentatious” religious signs in schools—coming after the sell-out of mass strikes against pension cuts, in which teachers played a major role—was supported by the UMP as well as the PS and the pseudo-left parties. This opened the floodgates for a series of discriminatory laws against Muslims, cynically pursued under the guise of defending “secularism” against Islam.
The ban on the veil in schools was followed in 2010 by the law prohibiting the burqa in public places, again with virtually unanimous support within the political establishment. On Tuesday, a man was jailed for 3 years for an incident last year in which he objected to police stopping his wife, who was wearing the burqa, as they returned with their baby from the market in Trappes, in the southwest Paris suburbs.
The targeting of the entire Roma ethnicity for mass deportations by the PS government, continuing the policies of the previous conservative administration of President Nicolas Sarkozy, has further helped bring ethnic tensions in France to a fever pitch.
It is in this debased atmosphere that the World Cup became the occasion for the fanning of anti-Muslim and pro-imperialist sentiment.