Gavin Mortimer

How Les Bleus united France by not taking the knee

How Les Bleus united France by not taking the knee
(Photo: Getty)
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For those who lean to the right and live in France, Tuesday night was magnificent. Not only did Les Bleus open their European Championship campaign with a 1-0 victory against Germany, but their boys defied expectation by not taking the knee before kick-off.

The build-up to the match had been overshadowed by an announcement on Monday by the team captain, Hugo Lloris, that France would follow England and Wales in taking the knee. Cue 24 hours of controversy. On social media, in TV studios and in the National Assembly it was 'La question du jour'. Should they or shouldn't they?

The issue proved as divisive in France as it has in Britain, with the response conforming to political ideologies. The far-left applauded the move and the far-right expressed their outrage. 'Boycottlesbleus' was a popular hashtag on Twitter throughout Tuesday, although most football fans merely wondered what the link was between an American gesture and France.

For Emmanuel Macron's LREM party the question proved particularly problematic. The Sports Minister, Roxana Mărăcineanu declared her support for taking the knee but Jean Terlier, the party’s spokesman in the National Assembly, said he understood why an American symbol could alienate French fans, particularly as it could be construed as a criticism of French police who, have ‘nothing in common’ with their American counterparts.

As it turned out, France didn't take the knee. Why not? Initially, it was suggested that a mindless Greenpeace stunt minutes before kick-off – in which a paraglider protesting about oil use crashed into the crowd, injuring two fans – had thrown the French off their stride, so to speak. Others speculated that the team abandoned the gesture because Germany refused to participate.

In his post-match interview, the French coach Didier Deschamps was asked why the gesture was abandoned. His response suggested the furore about the gesture had unsettled the squad. ‘No matter what we do, or what the players say, it leads to an interpretation and always a hijacking in one direction or another,’ he said. ‘That's not a good thing’.

According to the French media, the squad was ‘astonished’ by the response to their decision to take the knee and several players expressed their unease at adopting a gesture that could divide the nation. ‘We discussed it among ourselves,’ explained one of the players, Raphaël Varane, on Wednesday. ‘It's true that today it's not the same symbol that it was at the start... today it's more a symbol of tension in that one team takes the knee and another team doesn't. There’s not a collective momentum, a clear and strong message of unanimity. Therefore the message is not the one that we support.’

Emphasising that the French squad is proud of its diversity, Varane – whose father is from Martinique – added: ‘Our way of fighting all discrimination is to show that together, with these differences, we can be united and carry the same values. Our objective is to unite the millions of French.’

One suspects this is the outcome Emmanuel Macron would have wanted. The President likes his football and earlier this month he met the squad to wish them well in the Euros.

He’s on particularly good terms with 22-year-old Kylian Mbappé, not only a gifted player but a role model with a keen sense of social awareness. In 2018 he dined at the Elysée in the presence of Macron and George Weah, the president of Liberia, to discuss the development of sport in Africa. Last month Mbappé delighted the government by publicising his Covid vaccination on social media to encourage others to follow suit.

In short, the French squad is a valuable asset to Macron; a successful celebration of diversity, in a country that in recent years has struggled to find much common ground. When France won the World Cup in 2018 Macron ensured he was photographed at the matches, cheering on his boys, and he’s sure to do something similar if France reach the final of the Euros.

What he doesn’t want is for the Bleus to become divisive, gifting any political capital to Marine Le Pen's National Rally, who were quick to criticise the initial decision to take a knee.

National Rally have also expressed their displeasure at the controversial striker Karim Benzema returning to the national team, after five years in the wilderness. They accuse him of having a ‘dishonourable attitude’ towards France. Their main gripe, other than his pride in his Algerian roots, is that Benzema didn't sing the La Marseillaise before matches. But he did on Tuesday. What's more, Benzema and his teammates ran their socks off against Germany, in a performance that underlined why France are the tournament favourites.

This French team is mature on and off the field. They have united the entire country and won their hearts and minds. However well England play in the coming weeks, you can’t say that about the Three Lions.