viral sensation of its own, with his Instagram feed showcasing the team singing and dancing to iconic Afrobeats and coupé-décalé, and swaying to zouk and kompa in the Russian airports between games.
When they finally achieved their hard-fought dream of winning the World Cup, Pogba brought out his mother and brothers — Mathias and Florentin, who play for the Guinean national team — and, in jubilation, performed the Shaku Shaku and Gwara Gwara dances on French national TV. In the days since, players have honored their parents in heartfelt messages, acknowledging the shared dream and immigrant heritage they derived from. The desire to remove these very Africanmarkers of their identity is not coming from the players themselves. Instead, it comes from a populace that has a political investment in reaping the spoils of a French win from “one France” but still fails to come to terms with an emerging spirit of self-determination brought about by a history of disenfranchisement. The players are claiming their birthright, as is their entitlement; but they are also sharing their family and legacies with pride on their own terms. Together, they are reclaiming what they have constantly been reminded of growing up and turning it into a source of fellowship with their banlieues and beyond.
Divorcing the players from their heritage in the public sphere is not only about sanitizing the fact that the white population of France has refused to confront their race-based discrimination — right down to failing to measure metrics that could substantively track or assess progress across race- or ethnicity-based lines — it is also about diverting the discourse around France’s sins. A superimposed graphic showing all of the French team’s roots highlights just how much France owes its success to Africa and the Caribbean — a fact that should be painfully obvious — and that these communities, despite being pushed to the margins, continue to produce the best the country has to offer.
But at its worst, it leaves those communities with immense pain and few answers, as was the case of Adama Traore, the young French man, son of Malian immigrants from the Parisian banlieues, who died in police custody under suspicious circumstances on his 24th birthday, two years ago. These stories are France’s stories too — the successes, the failures, and the deep postcolonial pain that has and will continue to reverberate for years and generations. What lies in the chasm between the narratives of the country is the notion that if all groups, black, blanc, beur, collectively embrace a singular French identity, we can somehow adopt the successes, abandon the shame, and present a unified front of liberty and growth — a concept that only serves as a panacea for the white population.
The view from the top level of the Eiffel Tower is majestic and resplendent in the ways that pictures will never quite do justice to. If you squint just a bit, you can start to make out the edges of the banlieues of Paris where thousands of French and Francophone people live — people who don’t have the kind of undeniable soccer talent necessary to attain exclusively French citizenship. In these suburbs, people cheered on their hybrid communities, which were front and center as a result of the World Cup. What has previously been relegated to the far corners of the horizon is now in full beam of the spotlight, at great discomfort to the many who want to rob the soccer team — and all those who look like them and share their roots — the chance to celebrate their dual identities on a global scale. There may indeed be one France, but it is a France made up of many faces, and those whose roots extend far beyond these borders should be able to lay claim to France without suppressing claims to a heritage elsewhere.