But there is a more troubling aspect to the reaction to the defeat, which has focused on lack of patriotism, shared values and national honor on a team with many members who are black or brown and descended from immigrants.
The philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, who has often criticized the failures of French assimilation, compared the players to youths rioting in the banlieues, France’s suburban ghettos. “We now have proof that the French team is not a team at all, but a gang of hooligans that knows only the morals of the mafia,” he said in a radio interview.
While most politicians have talked carefully of values and patriotism, rather than immigration and race, some legislators blasted the players as “scum,” “little troublemakers” and “guys with chickpeas in their heads instead of a brain,” according to news reports.
Fadela Amara, the junior minister for the racially charged suburbs who was born to Algerian parents, warned on Tuesday that the reaction to the team’s loss had become racially charged.
“There is a tendency to ethnicize what has happened,” she told a gathering of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing party, according to news reports. “Everyone condemns the lower-class neighborhoods. People doubt that those of immigrant backgrounds are capable of respecting the nation.”
She criticized Mr. Sarkozy’s handling of a debate on “national identity,” warning that “all democrats and all republicans will be lost” in this ethnically tinged criticism about Les Bleus, the French team. “We’re building a highway for the National Front,” she said, in a reference to the far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Philippe Tétart, a sport historian at the Institut d’Études Politiques, said that the undercurrent of
racism was “very unhealthy, but one of the predictable negative outcomes of the World Cup defeat.”
France is confused about its identity and uncomfortable with the growing numbers and sometimes the attitudes of its immigrants and their children, he said. “What is certain is that we are going through in France questions of disobedience, of incivility, of loss of bearings, and this group of irritated young kids is an excessive reflection of those questions.”
In 1998, the French team that won the World Cup was widely praised for its multiethnic nature — black, white and Arab, and seen as a symbol of a more diverse nation. But today, Mr. Tétart said, the talk is the opposite.
Today’s players, he said, “come from a generation who come from the banlieues, and they don’t necessarily have the cultural background to understand what they did.”
Luc Chatel, the education minister, said on television Wednesday that he was “terribly angry” and shocked that Raymond Domenech, the team’s coach, who is blamed for some of the team’s disunity and apologized to the nation for the failures, refused to shake hands with the South African manager after the team’s final game.
“But I’m going to go farther,” he added. “A captain of the French team who does not sing ‘The Marseillaise,’ ” the national anthem, “shocks me, there it is. When one wears the jersey, one should be proud to wear the colors, you’re an example.”
He was speaking of Patrice Evra, who was born in Senegal and who found himself caught between players and managers as the team refused to practice after another black player, Nicolas Anelka, swore at Mr. Domenech and was removed from the team.
Mr. Sarkozy himself called a meeting on the disastrous result on Wednesday, summoning Prime Minister François Fillon, Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot and Rama Yade, the junior sports minister. In a statement, he said he had ordered them “to rapidly draw the lessons of this disaster.”
The racial makeup of the French team has long been an issue on the far right, even in a country where all the French are “citizens” and are supposed to have equal rights. Of the 22-man squad, 13 are men of color, with two born in French territories.
This month, Marine Le Pen, the vice president of the National Front and daughter of its founder, said that she did not see herself in the makeup of the team, whose players behaved as individuals, not as a team, and who were “fighting for advertising contracts more than for their country.”
“Most of these guys,” she added, “consider at one moment that they represent France at the World Cup,
and at another they are a part of another nation or have another nationality in their heart.”
In her contempt, which carefully did not mention the factors of race and ethnicity but implied them, she was echoing her father, who in June 2006 criticized the team for containing too many nonwhite players and failing to accurately reflect society. He also went on to scold players for not singing “La Marseillaise,” saying they were not French.
On Tuesday, Mr. Le Pen said that “the myth
of antiracism is a sacred myth in France.” He added, apparently with no irony, that he hated politicians who turned the national soccer team into “a flag of antiracism instead of sport.”
Now, the language of Mr. Chatel, the education minister, resonates with the themes of the Le Pens. That reflects, critics say, the general effort of Mr. Sarkozy and his party, over the last few years, to weaken the far right by playing on the same themes of patriotism, nationhood and identity.