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France’s diversity was their biggest strength, but it’s naive to think this team will change anything

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We want this team to represent something beyond soccer. It won’t.

France v Croatia - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

It is profoundly beautiful to see so much diversity in the victorious French national team. The players are close-knit and their joy with and celebration of each other is infectious. They emanate love and unbridled happiness. This Black, White, Arab, Christian and Muslim team, of players who are mostly immigrants, children of immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Seeing them jumping around and hugging after coming together to achieve a shared dream is an image that can act as an ideal for what our greater world should be. Especially in a time when the world is increasingly hostile to the identities of those players.

France’s victory has been so moving that people have inevitably begun to use it as a plea for respect and compassion for immigrants. France have become an argument against bigotry:

What France is showing us isn’t anything new, though. There has always been power in bringing different perspectives together. It is not just a good tactic to get the best players regardless of background — it’s also important to make sure that the team, a small society in its own right, represents the complexity of its country and the identities within it.

Didier Deschamps’ team is an ideal, but as inspiring as ideals are, they are limited in what they can do. France can appeal to our positive emotions about the collective strength of different types of people, and can even become a positive weapon — like Lilian Thuram of the 1998 French team, another championed for its diversity, using his fame and the success of the 1998 team to combat the “racist” immigration ideas of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.

But this team, though an ideal, will most likely change nothing. It is limited in the sporting context because the real world is much too complicated and things like racism and xenophobia can’t be fixed with just a wave of positive emotion. Bigotry didn’t end because of the victory of the 1998 French team and it’s unlikely that the result will be different in 2018. Sports can change individual lives and can be an avenue to connect to other humans, but it takes much more than that to affect real change in the world:

There’s also a problem with the idea that this victorious French team should be the argument against violence toward immigrants. Or should stand as the plea for justice. The problem is that everyone loves a winner. There has always been allowances made for exceptional immigrants, because they can be separated as the few good ones away from the supposed otherwise violent and greedy horde. It’s usually in doing the exceptional thing that immigrants are given the same respect and right to humanity that others are given automatically.

In the United States, we love to tout stories about the accomplishments of people like Steve Jobs, the son of Syrian immigrants, as if his success can be an antidote to the horrible treatment of regular immigrants who will most likely never reach those levels of achievement. Arguments based on exceptionalism inevitably position human rights and respect as things only belonging to great individuals, and not something that is inherent to human beings. It turns human dignity into a merit-based system.

It took for Mamadou Gassama, an immigrant in France, to scale four balconies up building and save a baby, for him to gain the respect and consideration that others had by birth. He was given French citizenship for his feat, but had he not done what he did, he would have surely been consigned to the often deplorable and dangerous life of other immigrants in France.

France wasn’t the only big team in the World Cup that was strong because of its diversity. England and Belgium were full of immigrants and children of immigrants. Romelu Lukaku of Belgium perfectly captured the problem with using exceptional immigrants as defenses against bigotry in his Players Tribune article before the tournament:

“When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker.

When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.”

When France exited the World Cup in the group stages in 2010 after the players revolted against the managers, all the good emotions of 1998 and 2002 were wiped away in exchange for coded hatred. French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said of the equally diverse French side: “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.”

Marine Le Pen, who was the vice president of the National Front at the time, and who recently lost the election for President of France to Emmanuel Macron, said: “Most of these guys 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.”

After France’s victory against Croatia, Macron was elated. Pictures of him celebrating were all over social media. As the players shook hands with officials while getting their medals, he gave long hugs and words of appreciation to each player as the rain poured down. He celebrated later with the team in the locker room, even dabbing with Paul Pogba. But for all of his happiness at the deeds of this diverse French team and the honor and pride they’ve brought to the country of France, he also perfectly set the limit on the power of such wonderful achievements a few months before.

When awarding Gassama with French citizenship, Macron said: “We can’t just give papers to everyone who comes from Mali, from Burkina. We’ll grant them asylum if they’re in danger, but not for economic reasons. But you did something exceptional. Even if you didn’t think about it, it’s an act of bravery and strength that has drawn everyone’s admiration.” Macron concluded by saying: “An exceptional act doesn’t change politics.”

France’s victory was a victory for immigrants. It is always wonderful to see the strength of diversity showcase itself to the world, to make a mockery of the irrational bigoted beliefs and fears against people who are just trying to live and work in peace like everyone else. But this team shouldn’t be burdened with the idea that they can change the world at large. Sports doesn’t really have the power to do that. What this French team can be, and what they’re so good at being, is a celebration of differences and the complexity of identity. They are a showcase of how good we can be if we embraced each other. France are an inspiring example of collective happiness, and that’s all they really need to be.