Les Bleus: Another History of France maps the French football team performance with the nation’s social struggles from 1996-2016. But does the film convey an implicit bias? It is unique in that it does not whitewash the team’s history, and it leaves much to think about.
The advertising sub-text for Les Bleus is “20 Years of Grace, Division, and Hope Reborn” (“20 ans de grâce, de désunion et d’espoir retrouvé”). Accordingly, the Réalisateurs cover France from its height of winning WC 1998 at home in Paris on the shoulders of Zinedine Zidane, through seemingly bottomless nadirs, to a rousing performance at the 2016 Euros.
Writer-Director Sonia Dauger and Director David Dietz address racism up front. WC 1998 is the beginning of the acknowledgement that France is no longer “Bleu Blanc Rouge” but now “Black Blanc Beur”. Beur is slang for Arab and refers to European-born children of Arab immigrants from North Africa. The country loves its Zisou, but popular politicians like Marie Le Pen complain that the team does not look French. French players discuss the stigma of coming from banlieues (suburbs or neighborhoods), which in American parlance, means coming from inner-city affordable housing slums.
The film explores Zidane’s ejection from the WC 2006 final, which contributes to France’s loss. The country gladly forgives Zidane, and I wonder if it is not just because of Zidane’s standing, but also because he looks more French.
When the French team declines
When the French team falls into disrepute, the shame appears largely due to its black and beur players. In 2008, newcomers and French-Algerians Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema are accused of poor attitude. Thierry Henry’s handball unfairly qualifies the team for WC 2010. Before the games, Ribery and Benzema are accused of sex with an underage prostitute (the case is finally dropped four years later). But during the games, strife continues as Nicolas Anelka insults the manager, is banned from the team, and the players strike. In 2011 the French Federation considers a quota on youth team dual nationals. In 2013 the media conflagrates the observation that dual nationals do not sing the anthem. Benzema is involved in a 2015 sex tape scandal.
In 2015, Islamist terrorist attacks inside France become massive. The worst terrorist attack in French history strikes outside a France-Germany friendly being played in the Paris national stadium. The country tries to come together to recover and heal. Perhaps fueled by this new unity, the French rise again at Euro 2016. This time it is through the performance of two white Frenchmen: Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. The film rests the hope of France on these two.
An implicit bias
The problem I have with this film is its implicit bias. Before watching this film, I knew little of the French team or its scandals. But the film seems to show the controversies of the black and beur players without balancing examples of their contributions. For example, the film singles out Zidane for France’s WC success, and yet when I watched the WC 2006 games, I was captivated by the indefatigable work rate of Claude Makélélé. And as much as I think Thierry Henry is a sociopath, he is an incredible player.
And how inappropriate to have Eric Cantona, the bad boy of soccer, defend the players. That’s like having Donald Trump speak on behalf of a fellow sexual harassment perpetrator.
France fights to maintain Liberty Equality and Fraternity
Despite the shortcomings, Les Bleus makes me admire the French in their struggle to do the right thing and preserve “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. Sport, religion, government, and society are all deeply intertwined. If the national team and the nation France succeed in eliminating racism, then there is hope that we can follow suit in the USA.
Note: My 3 years of high school French is extremely rusty, but there were many times when I thought the sub-titles conveyed an incorrect translation of meaning.
Update on Mar-5-2020: Congratulations to Les Bleus, as the team, with an outstanding performance by Kylian Mbappé, won WC 2018 in Russia! You might also want to watch Concrete Football, which credits France’s street football culture for some of its player development.
7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7