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Field Victory Colors French View of Themselves

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The French have renewed their very favorite love affair. With themselves.

Suddenly, “La Marseillaise” is cool again. Waving the tricolor flag no longer means a person sympathizes with the far-right, immigrant-hating National Front party of Jean-Marie Le Pen.

A stunning upset victory in the World Cup, the quadrennial international soccer tournament, has given the French immediate reason to feel good about themselves again. But it also has forced this ancient people--whose history texts once led with a controversial passage about “our ancestors,” the blond and blue-eyed Gauls--to rethink who they are.

The new answer, in a phrase: black, blanc, beur. Black, white, French-born Arab.

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“Of course I’m proud that France won,” remarked one beur, Rachid Bourguiba, 20, whose mother and father come from Morocco. As he sat, smoking one evening with friends in a park near the Canal Saint-Martin in northeastern Paris, he added: “I was born here, and this is my country. This is where I’m going to live.”

But citizens like Bourguiba who have black, brown or yellow faces are nearly invisible on French television. They are absent from the country’s political and business elite. And they have been driven to the fringes of most cities over the decades.

Disenchantment with immigrants, especially the nonwhite, had grown so widespread that former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, a figure of the establishment right, last month suggested a nationwide debate on whether there should be a “national preference” for some jobs.

Then came Les Bleus (the Blues)--the 22-member French soccer team, whose players could trace their ancestry not only to Normandy and Provence but also to Algeria, Argentina, sub-Saharan Africa, Armenia, Brittany, the Basque Country, Portugal, the Pacific isles and the West Indies.

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The squad was a living reminder that the land of the Gauls has become, at the end of the 20th century, a “rainbow republic.” Its shocking 3-0 victory over Brazil on July 12 was an unassailable argument that generations of immigrants have brought into France a rich flow of talent, physical strength and brains.

“The team of France is a symbol--that France is a mixed country but with a common ideal,” said Fode Sylla, president of SOS Racisme, a grass-roots organization that battles racial prejudice. “They proved that far from being a handicap, that diversity could lead to victory, and that they are all defenders of the republic.”

In fact, the hero of the semifinal win over Croatia was Lilian Thuram, 26, a black man from the “overseas department” of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. He scored both French goals. In the final, France’s first two points came on headers from Zinedine Zidane, 26, son of an immigrant construction worker from Algeria’s Kabyle minority and native of the slums of Marseilles.

“Now the young beurs can say, ‘We too can be part of France,’ ” said Monique Boisserie, 69, a widow from the upscale Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine.

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Demographer Michele Tribalat gushed: “The French team has done more for integration than years of pro-active government policies.”

It is more than that: Its victories suddenly have gotten many French discussing the virtues of the U.S.-style “melting pot,” rather than insisting as before that newcomers must “integrate” themselves into French society and embrace its culture and “republican” traditions.

Even Le Pen, who turned 70 during the World Cup and was caught flat-footed by the outburst of joyful patriotism, was forced to backtrack on his statement two years ago that immigrants should not be allowed to play on the national team.

Meanwhile, some of France’s European neighbors have been looking on enviously. In Germany, it is much more difficult for a Turk or immigrant of another foreign ethnic stock to obtain citizenship than in France. Staunchly Teutonic, anchored by players with names like Matthaus, Klinsmann, Kohler and Koepke, the German World Cup squad was blown away by Croatia, 3-0. “White, old and tired,” was how one German TV commentator summed up the losers.

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Italy, another ethnically homogeneous European squad, was bested by France, 4-3. “If we want to save the Italian team, we should build our soccer fields near refugee camps,” a commentator for La Repubblica, a Rome daily newspaper, concluded.

Victory brought more than 1 million of the French onto the Champs-Elysees, the biggest crowd since the Liberation in World War II. Beurs and blacks mingled with stylishly attired bourgeois from Passy and other chic capital neighborhoods. Longtime Parisians said they never had seen such a sea of blue-white-and-red French flags brandished by ordinary people. Crowds sang the stirring national anthem out of sheer pride and pleasure--another reported first.

Bourguiba, the Parisian of Moroccan lineage, was there, waving a tricolor with friends. “It was a joy for everybody--we’re in France after all,” he said.

These extraordinary, shared moments banished, at least for now, the moroseness and doubt that seemed to have become as much a part of contemporary French life as freshly baked croissants, high taxes and strikes by public-sector workers.

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The shift has more to do with factors beyond football, of course: France’s economy, the world’s fourth biggest, is growing again; consumers are more confident than at any time in the recent past; and even naggingly high unemployment--the rate now stands at 11.9%, with almost 3 million people out of work--is projected to come down by the end of 1998.

A year-old left-of-center government, presided over by Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, has convinced most voters of its competence and probity. The country has become more certain of itself, less fearful of the trends threatening its way of life that often are summed up by the grab-bag term “globalization” and include American fast food, movies and dog-eat-dog capitalism.

France’s soccer team “had a secret mission, which was to give a lesson of confidence, ambition and unity to the French,” said Alain Peyrefitte of the Academie Francaise, a former right-wing minister.

After the easy-money, scandal-ridden years of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Les Bleus also seemed to be the incarnation of some basic but long-neglected virtues: the ability to work hard and work together, the eschewing of big talk and glamour in favor of results.

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“This is the France we would love to see: valiant, stubborn, enterprising, multiracial but accepting its crossbreeding as a fact of life,” said the newsmagazine L’Evenement du Jeudi.

But does any of this mirror real life? “A victory in the [soccer] final . . . doesn’t change social reality, but it can change the image that the French have of themselves,” said Serge July, editor of the left-wing Paris newspaper Liberation.

Others are dubious. “In sports, it’s really the person’s ability alone that counts,” said Mohammed Soufi, 25, a supermarket manager and Parisian of Algerian descent. “But in the business world, I have friends where, as soon as the boss gets a look at them, he’s no longer interested.”

Rene Oliviero, 48, an engineer who lives near Rouen, said, “The team won, but had they lost, it would have been the fault of A, B or C, and origins would have become an issue.”

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Just as Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color bar in major league baseball 51 years ago hardly meant the end of racial discrimination in the U.S., achievements on soccer fields don’t necessarily extend to all realms of society.

“There are no beurs and very few blacks in competitive examinations for high government jobs. There are no Zidanes or Thurams at the Ecole Polytechnique,” an elite school, said Jean Levi, professor at the Institute of Political Sciences in Paris.

One recent Europe-wide opinion poll found the French classifying themselves as one of the most bigoted countries in Western Europe, second only to Belgians.

Catherine Pell, 37, is skeptical that French society now will change. “What we have lived through is a joyous, enthusiastic mob scene,” the black Parisian said. “These are passing fancies, and then people forget them.”

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But Alain Beyer, sports editor of Le Parisien, the country’s biggest mass-circulation tabloid, disagrees. He believes that a “new French Revolution” has just happened--and that it must not be limited to sports. “Soccer has played its part, but its part stops here,” he wrote. “Now it’s for others--politicians, bosses, labor leaders, artists and creators of all kind to take up the baton, to score the next point.”


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