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PARIS — Marine Le Pen has scored an early goal against rap music in France.
In a controversy that engulfed sports and politics ahead of the European Football Championship, which kicks off next month, the far-right chief led a public offensive against a rapper whose song had been chosen as France’s anthem for the tournament.
Blasting what she called “insulting” and “outrageous” lyrics in a tweet, Le Pen and other right-wing figures criticized the top-selling artist Youssoupha not over the anthem itself, but over earlier songs in which he’d explicitly targeted her. On Wednesday, the French Football Federation announced it would drop Youssoupha’s song, titled “Write my name in blue,” from its lineup for the tournament.
“It’s a retreat in the face of a controversy created by the National Rally,” said Nicolas Kssis-Martov, a left-wing journalist at the magazine So Foot. “Nothing is neutral when it comes to the France team and the context is unprecedented, with a resurgent right and far right.”
The episode underscores just how fraught France’s cultural and political debate has become in the run-up to a presidential election next year in which Le Pen is a top contender against President Emmanuel Macron.
France’s football team, which is made up mostly of players with immigrant backgrounds, has long been held up as a symbol of diversity and healthy “vivre ensemble” — or the idea that different communities can live happily side by side.
But that symbolism has also made anything that touches the team potential political dynamite. In the case of the anthem for Euro 2020 (it’s still officially called that after being delayed by a year because of the pandemic), it was 15-year-old lyrics by Youssoupha in which he said his “semen impregnates this b**** Marine Le Pen” that led to the far-right outcry and the song’s cancellation.
Explaining the decision to the daily Le Parisien, the head of the French Football Federation, Noël Le Graët, distanced himself from the choice, which was first used in a video clip unveiling the players selected for the France team.
The song was never meant as an anthem for the team and had been selected by “the young staff of the communications department,” he said.
Kssis-Martov said that explanation sounded unlikely. “I’d be surprised that a senior manager at the federation did not approve the song, especially because they would have paid Youssoupha,” he said, adding that the federation would not commission more than one song ahead of the tournament.
Campaign against rapper
Le Pen’s offensive against Youssoupha comes as she is ramping up her third bid for the presidency, with polls putting her neck-and-neck with Macron.
The National Rally chief, who is also running in local elections next month, called on the football federation to yank the song last week, tweeting that “the insulting and outrageous lyrics shock a number of Frenchmen.”
Allies then chimed in, attacking the artist for what they said was a call to rape their leader. Youssoupha declined a request for comment, telling POLITICO that he would not speak about the matter.
“It doesn’t matter what the anthem is about,” said Jean-Lin Lacapelle, a National Rally lawmaker in the European Parliament. “It’s about what [Youssoupha] represents: he is a symbol of the anti-France, the contempt for France. At a time when people are looking for values, for references, we need someone who loves France.”
In an example of how Macron is struggling to straddle both left- and right-wing messaging in the run-up to the election, the government gave a mixed response.
“Youssoupha is a popular rapper who campaigns against racism in France, who has beliefs and who speaks to the youth,” said Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu. “This song promotes diversity. The diversity of our football team that gathers around one shirt, one French flag, it’s magnificent and it corresponds to the values of football.”
But Gabriel Attal, the government’s spokesperson, refused to comment on the choice of song, while the junior minister in charge of citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, condemned the insults against Le Pen.
Culture wars on the pitch
The clash is a resurgence of a fierce debate over the national football team and what it says about French identity.
France’s World Cup victory in 1998 was branded a success for diversity and a symbol of a modern France, with a black-blanc-beur [black-white-Arab] team including players from different backgrounds. No matter where you came from, you were French and you were proud. It was a poster-boy moment for French universalism, with differences of class and origin transcended by victory and team spirit.
But France has struggled to recapture that spirit ever since.
“The perception of diversity in the national team is indexed in how France feels about itself,” said Kssis-Martov. “In 1998, France discovered the children of immigration thanks to football and [then France midfielder] Zinedine Zidane embodied that positive feeling. But it flipped as soon as there were problems.”
In 2010, the relationship hit rock bottom when the French players went on strike in South Africa over a clash with a coach. Many in France saw the incident as proof the team was a collection of spoilt millionaires, no longer proud of their country.
According to Kssis-Martov, managers of the French team have since tightly controlled the image of the players and sought to snuff out any controversies. But with the political debate in France dominated by the right and issues of immigration and the fight against criminality, tensions around what the French football team represents are unlikely to go away.