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France's Soccer Team Builds Unity, Euphoria at Home But Will It Last?


France's defender Benjamin Mendy is congratulated by supporters during a reception at the Elysee Presidential Palace after they won the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match, in Paris, France, July 16, 2018.

As the French savor their World Cup victory, the nation's soccer (football) team is changing old and negative stereotypes about immigrants and integration. But can this sense of national unity and pride really last?

It has been a heady week for French soccer — and for France. The French team's 4-2 victory over Croatia Sunday marks the first time the country has won the World Cup in 20 years.

French-Algerian fan Karim Benmekhdar was among many celebrating in the streets — and feeling proud to be French. He said the team did a great job and went to the end. He said it's not easy to win by 4-2 in a World Cup.

The team got a hero's welcome Monday. Many fans lining the Champs Elysees in Paris mirrored the origins of Les Bleus, as the team is known: multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. More than half the players are of immigrant origin.

FILE - France soccer team celebrate on the pitch with the world cup after they defeated Brazil in the World Cup Final, in Stade de France, in Saint-Denis, Paris, July 12, 1998.
FILE - France soccer team celebrate on the pitch with the world cup after they defeated Brazil in the World Cup Final, in Stade de France, in Saint-Denis, Paris, July 12, 1998.

It seems like a throwback to 1998, the last time France won the World Cup. That team was nicknamed black-blanc-beurs — black, white and North African.

But the sense of social and racial unity two decades ago proved ephemeral. Then came nationwide rioting by ethnic immigrant youth from poor towns, protesting police brutality. Then the spate of home-grown terrorist attacks, largely carried out by youngsters from North or sub-Saharan African backgrounds. And then came the rising popularity of France's far right.

FILE - French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, listens to representatives of French suburbs after he unveiled the much-awaited, far-reaching plan for reinvigorating suburban housing projects and integrating their young people, Feb. 8, 2008 at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
FILE - French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, listens to representatives of French suburbs after he unveiled the much-awaited, far-reaching plan for reinvigorating suburban housing projects and integrating their young people, Feb. 8, 2008 at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Dominique Sopo, president of anti-discrimination group SOS Racisme, says today, France's ethnic immigrant youngsters are broadly viewed with hostility.

He said many are cut off in the gritty suburbs known as banlieues — not just physically through lack of public transportation to get to places like Paris — but also symbolically and psychologically.

For France's soccer team, sports has helped to erase those barriers. President Emmanuel Macron hosted the players at the Elysee Palace on Monday. But critics say he has not done enough for the other youngsters that Sopo is talking about.

In May, Macron rejected a massive overhaul plan for the banlieues, settling for more modest measures. And like many countries in Europe, France is cracking down on immigration.

Still, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer believes the picture is brighter than critics claim. Integration, he told French radio, is not stalling, it's actually going pretty well. Many immigrants are rising socially and their children go on to earn academic degrees their parents never could.

Sopo of SOS Racisme agrees there is another face of immigration in France. It's Les Bleus, as the members of the national team are known.

They're winners, he said. They're likeable and they're at ease with their immigrant origins. But he doubts this positive image will last unless political leaders and French society build on it.

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