Made in Algeria: Football, Racism, and the Africa Cup of Nations

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Every Bastille Day in France, the incumbent President and the Army Chief of Staff parade down the Champs-Elysée. Such is the might of this procession – first militarized by Napoleon in an attempt to obscure the holiday’s revolutionary origins – that Donald Trump, witness to the parade in 2017, claimed in his obligatory superlatives that ‘it was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen…[ever]!’

Yet this year’s 14th July was not the routine mixture of civilized bellicosity and boozy fire-works for two reasons: the Gilets Jaunes and the Algerian National Football team. Protestors infiltrated the Champs-Elysée to shower Macron with abuse, and set considerable fire to the surrounding neighbourhood, reminiscent of the rioting of March 16th. Later in the evening, Algerian fans were out on the streets in French cities, after a brilliant last minute free-kick saw their national team qualify for their first Africa Cup of Nations final in 29 years.

Cue Marine Le Pen’s newly renamed Rassemblement National: already in the earlier knock-out phases Algerian victories were celebrated with an intensity seized upon by the sovereign claimants of the tricolour. Marine Le-Pen called for the Champs-Elysée to be off limits to Algerians on the night of the semi-final. Julien Odoul, an RN minister, went so far as to tweet a photograph of Algeria’s Nigerian opponents before the semi-final. ‘To prevent,’ he opined ‘further violence and pillaging, to avoid the tide of Algerian flags, and to preserve our national holiday, don’t expect anything from Castaner [France’s interior minister]. Have faith in the 11 Nigerian players.’

If all footballing gestures have their own political history: the English working class’s insistence on passing the ball, against the gentlemanly and aristocratic Victorian insistence that this was a sign of weakness; the development of dribbling in the 1930s by Afro-Brazilian players obliged to avoid onrushing white defenders whose foul-play referees would systematically ignore; then Algerian captain Riyad Mahrez’s last minute free-kick (coup-franc) was something like a kick in the Front National’s face, echoing the line from French-Algerian rapper Médine’s hit: ‘pour le birthday de ma niña, j’commande Marine en piñata.’ [‘for the birthday of my baby, I order Marine [Le Pen] in pinata.’] The coup-franc, from an old term for ‘free’ (franc), and homophonic with France’s pre-revolutionary eponyms, was of a righteous symbolism. Mahrez responded to Odoul after the match on Twitter with three hysterics emojis, ‘that was for you! We are together.’

Following the Algerian victory on the 14th July, the victory has been used as another opportunity for persistent forms of anti-Algerian racism, a racism that has frequently figured in France through the racialising spectre of ‘North-African criminality,’ to vent itself in the media, on social networks, and in the hands of French riot police.

While a part of this reaction reproduced the classically bourgeois contempt for working-class culture in general, with football culture metonymizing ‘real’ culture’s absence; it has also been used by right-wing tendencies within the Gilets Jaunes, notably on social media. After the match, a video of three young men from the Parisian banlieues went viral. The video shows the three men shouting ‘Nique la France’ [Fuck France!], and claiming to have pissed on the Arc de Triomphe. The viral reaction to the twenty-second clip took it as evidence of a double betrayal: post-colonial populations’ inevitable betrayal of the Republic, and Macron’s supposed betrayal of the French ‘people’, drawing on the conspiratorial theory of the ‘great replacement.’ According to this conspiracy, which was popular amongst elements of the Gilets Jaunes at the time of the Marrakech Agreements in December 2018, France and European Civilization more generally is being sold off by its decadent elites, to be replaced by black and brown people and cultures from the Global South.

In France, these forms of thinking are at least as old as the Algerian War, where Gaullist ideology (in cahoots, of course, with effeminate leftist intellectuals) was not only blamed for France’s defeat, but also seen as intent on destroying the basis of French national identity. A dogged attachment to the colonial history of a French-Algeria, that is, gave way to fears of an Algerian France, as immigrant workers came to the metropole to fill-up the labour markets of the post-war social-democratic compromise. The notion that the ‘great replacement’ is happening now demands a sense of urgency that must obscure the history of what is in fact a rather staid element of French racism. But that history speaks through the particular fervour reserved for the emergence of Algerians in French public space.

And that goes for the response of the police too. The right take offence at the state’s lenient treatment of Algerians. Yet, on the 14th July, while 175 people were arrested in the Gilets Jaunes demonstration (a comparatively large number), 282 arrests were made amongst those celebrating Algeria’s victory that same night. In Marseille, police refused entry to the Old Port, so as not to interfere with the Bastille Day celebrations that were, as it happens, already finished, to all ‘Algerian Supporters’ (racial profiling being the police’s preferred means of identification). This interdiction had the effect of pushing the celebrations back into Marseille’s central neighbourhoods. Unlike the extensive Hausmannian boulevards of Paris’s bourgeois centre, many of Marseille’s small and winding central streets are lived in by working class and North-African residents. As confrontations with the police ensued, police blindly fired tear gas onto the 6-storey rooftops of apartment buildings. These are the same streets where, on the 9th December 2018, Zineb Redouane, an elderly resident of the Noailles neighbourhood, was shot by a tear-gas canister while trying to close her window against the smoke. She died a day later from intoxication. The following day, a regional minister, enervated at the prevalence of Algerian flags in the port of Marseille, the city home to France’s largest Algerian diaspora, despaired: ‘But Marseille is France, not Algeria.’

One symptom of this racism is an anxiety over divided nationality itself, and the question of Franco-Algerian bi-nationality has historically had particular occasion to emerge within football. Think of the polemic over the Algerian Zinedine Zidane, who was instrumental in France’s World Cup victory in 1998, and who was, during a friendly match between France and Algeria only moments after 9/11, castigated by the French media for refusing to give his unqualified support for the French team. This week, the right-wing media outlet Le Parisien, in an attempt to redeem something of Algeria’s progression to this year’s Africa Cup final, published a piece entitled ‘Made in France’ emphasising that the ‘real’ roots of this Algerian team are in the mother country.

Yet, this interweaving of Algerian football and politics is no recent innovation. In the 1930s, after the creation of MCA, today the most popular football team in Algiers and then the first Muslim club in Algeria, French authorities forced Muslim teams to accept a quota of European players to avoid the game becoming a channel for anti-colonial sentiment. While football was banned during the war, along with all large gatherings Algerian players famously left their French clubs to form the ‘Independence Eleven’, the FLN’s team which was used to raise the profile of the struggle on the international stage, and which would become the national team in 1962. Resistance fighters were also heavily recruited from the leading football teams.

Many of the chants within the current Hirak movement in Algeria have developed within, and gone far beyond, stadium culture. A popular chant ‘1, 2, 3, Viva l’Algérie’ derives from an old anti-colonial slogan, ‘nous voulons être libre,’ which was anglicized in the 1950s to give it an international tone: the literal translation ‘We want to be Free’, was contracted to form the chant ‘Want-to-Free, Vi-va l’Al-gé-rie!’ And following a three-goal victory against Sheffield United in the 1970s, the political slogan was turned into ‘1,2,3, Viva l’Algérie.’ Another of the movement’s hymns, ‘Liberté’, a song popularized by the franco-algerian rapper Soolking, came out of the Ultras movement at Algier’s UCMA, the capital city’s second largest team. The militant core of this Ultra tendency, Ouled el-Bahdja [‘The Sons of the Radiant City’, one of Algiers’ nicknames], had released their song ‘Ultima Verba’ (with a nod to Victor Hugo), five days before the 22nd February protest which opened the series that would quickly topple Bouteflika’s regime. Soolking’s French rendering of the song, ‘Freedom, is first in our hearts, Freedom, of that we are not scared’, has become a defining melody of the moment, with over a hundred million views on youtube.

Until the enormous 22nd February protests broke the dictate against demonstration in public spaces in Algeria, football stadiums had for a long time given refuge to resistance. Since the sixties, in the stands of the club UCMA, a tradition of protest music – musically influenced by Arab Andalusian culture and, given high rates of emigration through Italy, politically influenced by Northern Italian Ultras – has developed within Algerian football. Ouled El Bahdja’s now emblematic song La Casa del Mouradia denounces Bouteflika’s regime with knowing irony, detailing the history of the four separate presidential mandates that saw him keep power, and pointing to the FLN’s infighting that would eventually see him forced to resign in the wake of the popular revolt: ‘the fifth [mandate] will come and be sorted out amongst them.’ This chant could be heard around the stadiums of Sissi’s Egypt as Algeria moved past Nigeria into the final of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations.

Before 2011 it was Egypt’s ultras who developed early anti-Moubarak slogans, and these supporters, who had long developed tactics of self-defence against the police, would help defend Tahrir square in 2011; similar to the role of Besiktas fans in the occupation of Taksim square in Istanbul in 2013. For the Algerian National team and its supporters, a political victory had preceded this Africa Cup of Nations. The fans considered Rabah Madjer an inappropriate manager: he had no experience as a trainer, and, though he had been a hero of the victorious 1990s team, he was now hand-in-glove with Bouteflika, a member of his Issaba (‘gang’). In June 2018, he was forced by popular consensus to resign – a precursor for the series of resignations at the top of FLN bureaucracy currently in crisis – before a more experienced managed was appointed and has led them to this Friday’s final.

With Algeria’s political movement at an impasse, constitutionally void yet still held by Gaid Salah’s transitional military forces, the final against Senegal this Friday, on the day of the 22nd weekly demonstration against the regime, will no doubt be played to high stakes.