The modern history of sports in France – from Gothenburg 1958 to South Africa 2010

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Kristian Gerner
Department of History, Lund University


Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958–2010 214 sidor, inb. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2013 ISBN 978-0-7391-7508-8

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff
The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958–2010
214 sidor, inb.
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books 2013
ISBN 978-0-7391-7508-8

The Force de frappe (French: strike force), or Force de dissuasion after 1961, is the designation of what used to be a triad of air-, sea- and land-based nuclear weapons intended for dissuasion, the French term for deterrence. (http://en.wikipedia.org/).

The quote refers to an issue of paramount significance for French national self-assertion and pride. The creation of a nuclear strike force was the effect of the political attempt to overcome the successive traumas of the so called “strange defeat” in 1940, the German occupation and the vassal Vichy regime in 1940-1944, and the loss of the colony Vietnam in 1954. The government of France launched its nuclear weapons program in 1954 and France tested an atomic bomb in Algeria in 1960 – Algeria then still a part of France, although in full military rebellion. By 1964 France had operational nuclear weapons. At this time, the French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa had gained sovereignty (1960) and the bloody war in Algeria had been ended and Algeria recognized as a sovereign state in 1962.

The above is a summary of the historical framework of Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff’s story of the rise and transformation of sport in postwar France. France settled for hard power, nuclear armament.  However, this was not sufficient. In President Charles de Gaulle’s new Fifth Republic, where gloire (“glory”) had become the lodestar of foreign policy “…the poor showing of French Olympians at the 1960 Rome Games … where the nation’s elite athletes failed in their quest for athletic accolades” was perceived as a catastrophe. France failed to win any gold medal – it gathered five medals in all – and finished in twenty-fifth place. The debacle in Rome ”forced the republic to recast the role of sports and its importance to the national image.” Excellence in sports should become a soft power.  This is where Krasnoff’s story takes off.

The author works in the US State Department.  She

joined the Office of the Historian in 2008 as a member of the Special Projects Division. As Coordinator of the office’s Ambassadorial Historical Briefing Program, she is responsible for conducting archival research and briefing Ambassadors, Deputy Chiefs of Missions (DCM), and others on the history of U.S. bilateral relations with European nations and the evolution of the role of U.S. representatives at posts in Europe. (http://rht.gmu.edu).

This American state historian’s account of the sport scene in France thus is inspired by a keen knowledge interest which falls under the heading “intelligence.” This means that there is a strong incentive to produce information that is both reliable and useful.  Otherwise the result would be of limited value to the end users.

Krasnoff is a professional historian with a PhD from CUNY in 2009. The book under review is an updated version of her PhD dissertation. The Making of Les Blues is a solid empirical study that is based upon funds in French state archives, French printed reports on sport and memoirs and reports by French athletes and bureaucrats. The bibliography includes 25 “Oral Histories:” interviews and e-mail communications with sport ministers, administrators and experts in the fields of sport, education and health in Paris, Marseille and Rennes.

Krasnoff shows that sport became a matter of state interest in France in the wake of the unexpected bronze medal in the World Cup in football in 1958. It was significant that in this tournament with “national” teams, the French side was “heavily populated with first-, second-, and third generation immigrants.” The first chapter is labeled “To Remake the Nation’s Image, 1958-1973.” Not only would France emerge as a sports world power. It would emerge also as a civic success story where a sense of community, meritocracy and teamwork served as “a stable foundation to a rapidly changing society,” in which football facilitated assimilation of the immigrants.

The second chapter identifies the travails to be overcome when the ephemeral football success in 1958 had been followed by the debacle at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960. It is called “De Gaulles’s Sports Crisis, 1958-1973” and describes how the government attempted to forge sport into an instrument of international influence and national cohesion. The High Commissioner for Youth and Sport, Maurice Herzog noted that the first challenge was to eradicate “the old prejudice against sports in this country”, in a nation where the hero was “the intellectual man who was pale, a poor physical specimen”. The task was to foster a sports culture. The means chosen was state-subsidized access for youth to training grounds, state-funded construction of sports facilities and state financial support for elite athletes. Further means was the use of sports medicine and diet and nutrition programs for the athletes, as well as anti-doping measures.  However, this was not enough. In the Olympic Games, France continued to lag behind not only the superpowers, the US and the USSR, but also lesser states.

The third chapter is labeled “Creating an Athletic Force de Frappe, 1973-1984.” The militaristic language is warranted because it was a question of armament. France was out to create a counterpart in athletics to the atomic bomb. It was not only a matter of sports as a weapon in foreign affairs. The impact of the mass demonstrations and strikes in May 1968, as well as the increased immigration from the former colonies in Africa, in combination with the appearance of the xenophobic political party Front National, made sports to be seen by the authorities also as a means to socialize the youth and assimilate the newcomers. The state would exert its soft power internally.

On October 29, 1975 the French government issued a Law on Physical Education and Sport which made sport a state priority. The new legislation reinforced two programs that had been launched in 1973, the sport-study section and the football formation center. The most important “soft” force was the Youth Academies where especially talented young footballers received both ordinary education and special athletic training. Krasnoff underlines the ambitious goal of the sports armaments:

…sports were used to instill an appreciation not only for democracy, but also the tendencies to obey authority, to follow the rules, and the belief that one can advance through hard work and one’s merits. Moreover, team sports such as football and basketball reinforced the concepts of citizenship (community) and teamwork. (65)

The national football and basketball teams became known as the Les Bleus. They were to become the force de frappe in sports. The author compares this French initiative with contemporaneous developments in communist East Germany, adding that the French system was “not totalitarian in nature, taught democracy and democratic attributes, and emphasized community and citizenship.”

Krasnoff observes that football remained a predominantly male sport whereas the female dimension was more prominent in basketball; she notes that French cultural stereotypes and prejudices were responsible for a certain “gendering” of team sports. A highly informative part of the story is the double-sided tale of the importance for the French national team of first or second generation immigrant players from the former colonies in Africa, who were trained in the Youth Academies, and for the national teams of the former colonies of the “re-import” of players educated at the French Academies. Concerning basketball, the French contribution of players to the US WBA league stands out as similarly successful achievement.

The two maturity exams passed by Les Bleus (the males) were the victory in the World Cup in football in 1998 and the silver medal won by the basketball team in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Concerning the football triumph Krasnoff acknowledges that “most in France identified and claimed the multiethnic Les Bleus as their own. Zinédine Zidane, the son of an Algerian immigrant, became a national hero.”  However, the chapter that tells of the successes of Les Blues and French prowess ends with the hint that French civic culture was dissolving in the sign of a “very public discourse on French identity and racism.”

This book about the elevation of sports to a matter of national concern and an important soft weapon for France in the country’s endeavor to create a virtual substitute for its vanished empire does not have an unambiguously happy end.

The final part of Krasnoff’s story begins with a report of a major setback for the image of France as a civilized civic nation. The occasion was the match in 2001 of the national football team against Algeria, the first match ever between the two sides. A quarter of an hour before the match in Paris would end, Les Bleus leading 4-1, youth of North African and sub-Saharan African descent invaded the field without the authorities managing to restore order.

This failure of France to stand out as a country of peaceful integration in the name of civility was to be followed by the demise of Les Bleus as a success story before the eyes of television viewers in the whole world. The omen was the obviously unsportsmanlike hand-ball by French player Thierry Henry in a qualifying match for the World Cup against Ireland in Paris in 2009, unseen by the referee and resulting in a decisive goal for France. This disgraceful display of unfairness was followed up by the eruption of great dissonance among team members and between them and the coach during the World Cup tournament in 2010. The quarrels were acted out in public and reported by the mass media. France was eliminated from the tournament in the first round after losing two games and drawing one.  The humiliating spectacle offered by Les Bleus lead to French soul-searching and a discussion of politics, training and national identity.

In the concluding chapters Krasnoff recalls the discussion following the 1960 Olympic Games debacle. In 2010 the frustration was even greater than fifty years earlier. What happened was viewed by politicians and the public at large as a French international political disaster, as an indication that something was profoundly wrong in the training system, and as a sign that socio-ethnic divisions had widened. The author calls attention to the riots in 2005 in the immigrant suburbs, the banlieus, signaling that the internal goal of the sports weapon had not been accomplished either.

The making of Les Bleus was conceived as a peaceful counterpart to the construction of the French force de frappe. The endeavor turned out to be equally futile. In 2010, in spite of fifty years state direction of sport as an instrument to forge a healthy and harmonious nation, French society was in a precarious state. Krasnoff’s assertion that the sports education program that was inaugurated in the 1970s “taught democracy and democratic attributes, and emphasized community and citizenship” was not validated.

Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff’s tale is packed with detailed information about the role of sports politics in the development of France, from being a programmatically non-ethnic, successfully de-colonizing civic society into becoming a nation that is characterized by ethno-social divisions and conflicts. Another way of concluding this review is to state that Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff has told an empathetic story of a French dream of harmony and greatness that did not come true. Her concluding judgment of the whole enterprise is profoundly ambiguous. The last sentence in the book starts by recognizing the success of the force de frappe of sports but ends by arguing that because the world has changed, this French weapon may have become obsolete:

… since 1958 sports have helped reconfigure France’s international image and reputation, as a domestic device to socialize and assimilate the youth, and as a lens through which to contemplate the question of what it means to be “French” in a postcolonial, Europeanizing, and globalizing world. (154)

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2014

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