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Friday, July 12, 2024

A Political Fight Won, France’s Stars Turn Back to a Soccer One

LocalA Political Fight Won, France’s Stars Turn Back to a Soccer One

For once, Didier Deschamps could reflect on a news conference that passed by almost without incident. Given the timing, that had seemed unlikely. On Sunday, French voters had issued a stinging rebuke to their country’s resurgent far right in a seismic legislative election. On Tuesday, the country’s increasingly activist soccer team will face Spain in a European Championship semifinal.

Sandwiched between the two was an appearance by Deschamps, the coach of the French national team, in the full megawatt glare of the world’s news media. Although he has always been studiously inscrutable, his players have not. Over the past month, a half dozen members of his squad have made their feelings on the rise of the National Rally perfectly clear.

The forward Marcus Thuram called on the French to “fight daily” against the threat of the far right. The defender Jules Koundé expressed his hope that the country would reject those who “seek to take away our freedom.” His teammate Ibrahima Konaté urged that power should not be handed to “certain people who are intent on division.”

Deschamps, then, may well have been expecting awkward exchanges on Monday. Instead, he found himself fielding the sort of questions that must have come as blissful relief. How fit was Kylian Mbappé? What does he think of Spain’s midfield?

There was only one moment of tension. Deschamps had been asked by a Swedish journalist if it might be fair to characterize his France team as a little, well, boring: It has, after all, managed to reach the semifinals of the tournament without scoring a goal from open play.

“If you’re bored, watch something else,” Deschamps replied. “You don’t have to watch. We have the ability to make France happy with our results. If the Swedes are bored, it doesn’t matter too much to me.”

In comparison with the issues that France’s squad have been grappling with over the last month, the entire news conference could be safely cast as nothing more than light relief. Soccer is traditionally apolitical, by both habit and inclination. Players, as a rule, demur when asked to offer an opinion on any issue that carries even a whiff of controversy.

A significant portion of Deschamps’s squad at this tournament, though, clearly felt that was not an option.

Thuram, whose politically active father won a World Cup for France, was among the first to speak out. Another forward, Ousmane Dembélé, noted that “alarm bells were ringing” and asked his compatriots to “rally round and come together to vote.”

Mbappé, the team’s captain and its most influential cultural figure, warned that “the extremes are at the gates of power” and admitted he did not “want to represent a country that doesn’t correspond to my values, or our values.”

“I hope my voice will carry as much weight as possible,” he said as the election neared. “I hope we’ll make the right choice and that we’ll still be proud to wear the French national team jersey on July 7.”

The players’ message was apparent but modulated just enough not to be explicit. That approach did not last long. When the results of the first round of the elections came in — a day before France’s first knockout game in the tournament — the National Rally had taken 33 percent of the vote. France, the country and the team, was suddenly confronted by the prospect that a far-right party would dominate government.

When Mbappé spoke a few days later, he left no doubt where he stood. “It is an urgent situation,” he said. “We cannot let our country fall into the hands of these people. It is pressing. We saw the results, it’s catastrophic. We really hope it’s going to change, that everyone is going to rally together, go and vote, and vote for the correct party.”

Whether that intervention — or the compounding pressure exerted over the course of the tournament by the players, some of the most high-profile figures in French public life — made the slightest bit of difference when the country returned to the polls on Sunday is impossible to gauge.

Certainly, it will not have been as significant as the decision by France’s left and coalitions to present a united front and withdraw candidates from about 200 districts so as not to split the anti-National Rally vote.

That the players’ voices mattered, though, can be judged from how their comments during Euro 2024 were received. The French far right has long held the country’s national team in contempt. In 1998, when a multiethnic squad led France to its first World Cup victory, Jean-Marie Le Pen — the founder of the National Front, the organization that was subsequently rebranded as the National Rally — suggested the team was “artificial” because it included too many nonwhite players.

Eight years later, with France on its way to another World Cup final, Le Pen bemoaned that the country “could not recognize itself” in a national team inspired by Zinedine Zidane, a playmaker of Algerian descent, and marshaled by Lilian Thuram, a defender born in Guadeloupe.

Over the past month, Mbappé, Dembélé and the others have inspired a similar kind of reaction from Le Pen’s heirs, both ideological and genetic.

“I’m a little embarrassed to see these athletes giving lessons to people who can no longer make ends meet, who no longer feel safe, who do not have the chance to live in neighborhoods protected by security agents,” said Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old president of National Rally. His vice president, Sébastian Chenu, accused Mbappé of being “quite disconnected from reality.”

Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter and National Rally’s most prominent member, advised “actors, footballers and singers” not to “come forward and tell French people how they should vote.”

“It is starting not to be well received in our country,” she said. “French people are fed up with being lectured and advised on how to vote. This election is an election of emancipation in which the French people want to take back control of their destiny and vote as they see fit.”

On Sunday, of course, that appeared to be precisely what happened, albeit not quite in the way that Ms. Le Pen had hoped.

Within the French squad, though, there was a feeling of overwhelming “relief,” as Koundé put it on social media. Several of his teammates echoed his thoughts: Marcus Thuram offered his congratulations “to all who stood up to the threat hanging over our beautiful country.” The midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni described Sunday’s results as “the victory of the people.”

The political situation, of course, is much more complex than that. The sporting one is not. France has a game on Tuesday, against an impressive Spain team, for a place in the final of Euro 2024. For the first time in the tournament, many of its stars have made clear that they are still proud to carry their country’s flag.

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