Unity of '98 in stark contrast to the broken France of today
Published 11/06/2016 | 02:30
With Euro 2016 taking place across a jittery France this month, all the signs are that the tournament will be about much more than football. The country thousands of Irish football fans are flocking to is not a happy one.
Not only is France still in a state of anxiety - and official emergency - after last year's terrorist attacks in Paris. It also finds itself pummelled by strikes, blockades and unemployment, overseen by a deeply unpopular government challenged by a rising far right.
Security concerns are paramount. The opening match yesterday evening took place at the Stade de France - symbolic because the stadium had been targeted by suicide bombers as part of last November's multi-pronged attacks in Paris, which together claimed the lives of more than 130 people.
With the month-long tournament comprising 51 matches played in 10 French cities and involving 24 national teams from across Europe, supported by 2.5 million visiting fans, security is a major challenge.
Mohamed Abrini, one of those arrested in connection with the Paris attacks and the recent bombings in Brussels, claimed recently that Isil intended to strike France during the games. Earlier this week, a suspected far-right extremist French national was arrested in Ukraine with weapons and explosives. French media reported he was allegedly planning "15 terrorist strikes" during the tournament.
The US and Britain have advised their citizens that match locations and venues broadcasting the tournament, as well as travel hubs, are "potential targets for terrorist attacks" throughout the month.
Of particular concern are the open-air 'fan zones' in host cities, where spectators unable to attend the match can watch the action on giant screens. These are expected to draw tens of thousands in nine cities - including Paris, Marseille and Lyon - making security officials nervous about the possibility of an attack similar to those in November, where most were killed by Isil gunmen opening fire in restaurants and a concert venue. Around 90,000 security personnel - including from private firms - will be deployed across the country.
Aside from the security headache, French authorities are also fretting over whether ongoing strikes by unions will overshadow the championships. In recent weeks, protests over controversial labour reforms have disrupted transport, triggered fuel shortages and caused rubbish to pile up on the streets.
"The image of France is at stake", sports minister Patrick Kanner said this week, calling on unions not to "spoil the party atmosphere" and arguing the tournament can be an opportunity for a bitterly divided country to unite behind the national team.
Easier said than done. France's hosting of Euro 2016 has prompted much nostalgic revisiting of 1998 - the year the national team won the World Cup on home soil. The celebratory expression 'black, blanc, beur' (the latter a word used describe immigrants of north African origin) was coined to describe a multi-cultural French team that included Zinedine Zidane, the Marseille-born son of Algerian immigrants, and his black team-mates Lilian Thuram and Marcel Desailly, among others. A sign saying 'Zidane président' was even projected on the Arc de Triomphe.
Though the apparent unity of 1998 has taken on a rose-tinted hue with the passage of time, it still stands in striking contrast to France today, which seems paralysed by questions of identity in the face of an increasingly popular far right. The debate has even affected a dispute over the make-up of the national team for Euro 2016. This week, Karim Benzema, a star striker for Real Madrid who was born in Lyon to Algerian parents, claimed in an interview with Spanish media that French coach, Didier Deschamps, did not include him in the line-up because he had "bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France". Benzema went on to refer to "an extremist party" - i.e. the far-right National Front, which made historical gains in regional elections last year.
Iconic French footballer Eric Cantona later said that, in his view, Deschamps left out Benzema and a fellow player, Hatem Ben Arfa, because "they have some origins" - a reference to their North African ancestry. It all feels very far away from the euphoria that surrounded France's World Cup victory in 1998, and says much about where the country finds itself today.