French football v the far right: how Mbappé and Les Bleus stood up to extremism

<span>Kylian Mbappe wears a face mask to protect his broken nose on 20 June.</span><span>Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Kylian Mbappe wears a face mask to protect his broken nose on 20 June.Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

The Euro 2024 tournament began explosively for Kylian Mbappé – the France striker and one of the best and highest-paid footballers in the world – but not necessarily the way he wanted. His week kicked off controversially last Sunday when, responding to a question about the political situation in France at a pre-match press conference, he said the public should avoid voting for “extremes” in the coming French elections.

“I want to be proud to represent France,” he said. “I don’t want to represent a country that doesn’t correspond to my values, or our values. People say don’t mix football and politics but here we are talking about a situation that’s really important, more important than the game. The situation in our country is dire and we need to act.”

Although Mbappé did not name Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) as the dangerous “extreme”, it was immediately assumed that this was what he meant.

The day before, Mbappé’s team-mate Marcus Thuram, the son of the World Cup winner Lilian Thuram, had been even clearer. In a pre-match briefing, he said that France faced a “sad reality” and that it was incumbent on him “as a citizen to fight so that the RN does not pass”, adding that he hoped his team-mates shared his views. Mbappé obviously did, and both players paid the price as they came under a full-on media assault which threatened to overshadow their opening match against Austria on Monday.

In the end, none of this prevented France from playing well, or at least well enough, winning 1-0 with a subdued but assured performance courtesy of an own goal by Maximilian Wöber – the result of a move crafted by Mbappé. Disaster struck in the 86th minute, however, when Mbappé, competing for a header, collided nastily with the Austrian defender Kevin Danso and broke his nose. Watching the match in my flat in southern Paris, with my windows open on a sticky night, I could hear loud howls of despair all along the street.

The broken nose sparked a new controversy around Mbappé. The French team is full of stars but he is exceptional even within that constellation. In the hours and then the days after the match, the French sports press, like the rest of the nation, worried about whether he would pull through and make the rest of the tournament. Then they fretted over what would happen next if he didn’t make it – would the veteran goal-scorer Olivier Giroud, now 37 years old, be an adequate replacement? Had the team been too much formed around Mbappé’s brilliance? Was there even a plan B? The team, one of the favourites for the tournament, were now suddenly in great danger. Mbappé was absent from the lifeless 0-0 draw that France played against the Netherlands on Friday, and the team sorely missed their talisman. Severe doubts still linger over when he will return.

The anxious mood was perfectly captured in a headline in L’Équipe, France’s leading sports journal, which published a full-page portrait of Mbappé on its front page, with his back to the camera, wounded and in pain. Inside, a headline read: “Dread and hope!”

This is a headline that also sums up the present political mood in France. There has been an atmosphere of panic and uncertainly in the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap parliamentary election which may well bring the far-right RN to power. Most people I have spoken to since Macron announced the election say that they have not known such political tumult in their lifetime.

“We have never seen anything like this,” I was told by Alain, a retired teacher in his 60s, a friend and neighbour, as we sat at the terrasse of the Café Losserand on the rue Pernety. Alain has voted Socialist all his life, but now feels trapped or tricked by Macron. “I hate the RN,” he said. “But I know that every vote against them is a vote for Macron, who is a catastrophe.” Alain is a football fan and a supporter of the French team, but struggles to maintain interest in the Euros. “Football has lost its flavour,” he said. “It’s hard to watch sport when there is a bigger, more dangerous, game being played with the country.”

Clearly Mbappé and Thuram felt the same way last weekend. In the days after they made their statements, they were both accused in parts of the rightwing press of not showing the correct attitude towards football, or indeed towards France. Predictably, Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old president of the RN went on the attack, saying that he had the greatest respect for them as sportsmen, but that they were multimillionaires who had no business telling poorer people how to vote. In contrast, the French manager, Didier Deschamps, defended his players, asserting that as citizens they had every right to state their views on their own country.

Philippe Diallo, president of the French Football Federation (FFF), was less sure about this. Immediately after Thuram had made his first statement, Diallo sent out a press release stating that “all forms of political pressure should be avoided with the French team”. Mbappé was annoyed by this, as was his team-mate Antoine Griezmann, and they made their views known to Diallo. After Mbappé’s statement on Sunday, which was obviously meant to provoke Diallo, the all-powerful president had no option but to go on the back foot. Not wanting to rile his players further, he put out a statement saying that they were “young men with certain views on society, and it is not for me to rein in their views on what concerns their generation”. He emphasised, however, that he was “not the president of a political party” and that the FFF maintained neutrality on all political matters.

This is not the first time that players for the national team have taken political positions and challenged the authority of the French game’s ruling body. The tradition goes back to the World Cup of 1978, held in Argentina, when the winger Dominique Rocheteau, egged on by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, publicly denounced human rights abuses by the ruling Argentinian junta, embarrassing the FFF and the French government. In 2002, Zinedine Zidane spoke out against the Front National, the antecedent of the RN then led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, as they looked to make electoral gains, saying that they did not “represent the values of France”. Lilian Thuram has been even more active on the political front, arguing during his time as a player and afterwards that France had to face up to its ­colonial past. It is no accident that his son Marcus is named after Marcus Garvey, the great Jamaican political activist.

I have interviewed Zidane and met Lilian Thuram twice, and found them to be forthright and articulate about their politics, and unrepentant about making a stand. This has not always been easy for them. Zidane in particular was targeted in the 1990s when figures in the Front National declared that if Zidane, who is of Algerian origin, was acceptable to the French it was only because his father had been a harki. This is an Arabic word used to describe the Algerians who fought for the French during the Algerian war and who were massacred or fled to France in its aftermath. The harkis have been long regarded as pariahs and a source of shame in Algerian communities in France.

One of the consequences of this libel was that Zidane received death threats before the friendly match between France and Algeria in October 2001, was booed during the match and finally left the pitch in tears after the game was abandoned due to a crowd invasion. Some elements in the crowd had been chanting “Zidane-harki!”. Zidane told me, when I interviewed him in Madrid some years later, that this had been the worst moment of his career.

The harki insult is still very much alive in the banlieues of France. In 2022, Mbappé was publicly denounced by the Parisian-Senegalese rapper Booba who publicly accused him of being a harki for voting in a French election. Mbappé shrugged this off, but he is not quite as universally admired as he used to be in the banlieues where he grew up. This is mainly down to the way in which he has played cat and mouse for the past few years between his home team, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), and Real Madrid, where he finally moved at the end of the 2024 season. He also promotes a lavish lifestyle, documented in flashy detail on his Instagram account, and lives in a penthouse in the 16th arrondissement, the wealthiest area in Paris and a long way from his own roots. This is why his latest political statement cuts little ice with the present generation of banlieusards.

Not far from the café Losserand, at the Place de Catalogne, I spoke to a group of young football fans from the nearby cité (housing estate) who were loafing about, chatting and smoking weed. “Mbappé is a disappointment,” said Moussa, who is 18 and a footballer with a local team. “He left PSG for money and glory, and that’s it.”

Farida, who is also a PSG fan, joined in. “I used to love Mbappé but he has left us behind,” she said.

All of the group wanted France to win the Euros but beyond that were fatalistic about the coming political storm. “Mbappé and Thuram can say what they like,” said Farida, “But they won’t stop the RN. No one can. We carry on acting normal, watching football, but really nothing is normal in France now.”

Her mates all agreed with her as she added ominously: “And we still don’t know how bad it can get.”