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Les Dégommeuses are trying to do the work for women’s soccer that FIFA and FFF won’t

With women’s soccer underpromoted by the people in charge of it, fans and independent organizations are trying their best to fill the gap.

When France played Norway on June 12, I was in a little brasserie in the 18th arrondissement, watching with a group of friends, most from the United States with one Canadian added to the mix. Four of us were wearing Les Bleues jerseys, the distinctive blue hexagon print on white standing out against the dark wooden décor. We had to crane our heads to watch the TV positioned on a post high and to our left, but as far as we could tell, ours were the only heads swiveling as France defeated Norway 2–1, that one against coming from an almost unthinkable Wendie Renard own goal. We howled in disbelief at that moment — particularly me, sitting there in my custom Renard jersey — and gasped and cheered our way through the rest of the game.

Eventually, a group of young French people in front of us howled back in irritation, our noise a distraction from their conversation, which did not include watching France play. The Canadian amongst us — Shireen Ahmed, for the record, who can walk into any situation and come out of it with a new friend — quickly convinced one of the young men to explain why no one in the restaurant seemed as into seeing France compete as we were. Amidst a couple of shrugs they said they did care; “It’s cool that everyone cares,” our young Frenchman told us in English, and they joined in some of the scattered clapping when the whistle blew and France took all three points. But like the rest of the diners, they clearly considered the game playing on the TVs behind them background noise.

There does seem to be a noticeable lack of engagement with the Women’s World Cup here in Paris. I spoke to Veronica Noseda, one of the co-founders of Les Dégommeuses, a French group that promotes women’s football and fights discrimination, particularly sexism and homophobia. They’ve been active since 2012, when one of their first projects was collaborating on a week-long event with Thokozani FC, a football club for South African black lesbians, named after Thokozani Qwabe, murdered in 2007 for being a lesbian (CW: rape, homophobia, hate crime). Noseda thinks the blasé attitude, at least in Paris, stems from a combination of outdated attitudes toward women’s football and the locals simply not knowing that the World Cup is going on under their noses.

Currently, Les Dégommeuses is attempting to raise awareness not just about the World Cup, but about the place of women — all types of women — in French football with a series of posters they’ve put up around Paris. According to Noseda, these posters are a response to “a very homogeneous image of female soccer players in France.”

“[Football Federation France], they talk about the politics of feminization,” she says, “Which means they want more women on the pitch and in the federation, which is great. But behind [their words] there was also a politic of feminization of the image of the players. They wanted the players to be beautiful, they wanted [them] to be very feminine, to reassure [people] about the fact that they are heterosexual, they are straight, they are one kind of woman. So responding to that, we wanted to have posters representing the multiplicity of women playing football, which means multiplicity in terms of looks.”

The posters certainly do show a multiplicity of women, from their gender presentation to their body types to their race. A row is hung on the fences outside the FIFA Fan Zone at Les Halles, although Noseda says there is no official partnership between Les Dégommeuses and FIFA. The organization simply went around Paris and stuck up posters of their own accord.

In fact, Noseda thinks FIFA could have done much, much more to promote the tournament in France. The Les Halles fan zone is nice, and in her opinion the French media are actually playing their part in covering the World Cup, but the marketing of the tournament is rather lackluster. The metro advertisements are one of her top criticisms — sure, you can find the odd poster of Les Bleues posing together, and there are a few ads on the backs of buses, but it’s hardly ubiquitous. “There is no sign in the public space that the World Cup is going on,” she says. In smaller cities like Reims and Valenciennes, the World Cup is more significant and takes up more space. “But in Paris, honestly, I’m a little bit disappointed.”

“I think there is a growing interest,” she says. “But for me a World Cup means to be in the streets and to be in the cafes and to see the match with someone else.” Noseda compares the degree of attention Paris is giving to the current tournament to the 2016 Euros, when there were televisions playing the game on every corner. “Everything stops, about the men it’s true, but not about the women.”

“It’s really a masculine sport,” she says of the less-than-progressive attitudes towards the women’s game. “And if you play football, you are criticized. You are a little bit disqualified. Your soccer is not good on principle.”

This attitude ripples out to the way the French women’s league operates. D1 Feminine might have one of — if not the best — women’s clubs in the world in Olympique Lyonnais, but there is a staggering disparity between OL and the clubs at the bottom of the league. Lyon star Ada Hegerberg is reported to make €400,000 a year, while at the bottom of the table, Noseda estimates at least a few players might take home only €800/month or €9,600/year, assuming they get paid for 12 months, which is uncommon. Unlike in NWSL, there are no requirements regarding a minimum or maximum salary, and so Noseda calls it a “scattered situation,” with superstars making dozens of times what other players are paid. Of course, this is not an argument that Hegerberg should be paid less, but that those at the bottom of the league need to be paid more, quite a bit more.

“It’s always a little bit like USA and Thailand,” Noseda admits ruefully as she described the gap between top and bottom in D1F. “Closing this gap [will be one] of the major challenges after this World Cup.”

Another challenge will be making French women’s football a safe place to be an out queer athlete. Noseda is a big admirer of Megan Rapinoe and other American players who have come out or are simply open about their lives, but their situation is different to that of French female players. “The main obstacle is the national discourse,” she explained. “In the US, the national discourse — I make it simple — is we’re all different but we all come together for the American nation, we’re all together. In France it’s not this.”

Noseda describes how the French national identity emphasizes that its citizens are French and nothing else, but notes this idea, ostensibly about affirming that all French citizens are equal, is in practice an erasure of the diversity of France’s population. “You’re French and that’s all,” she says. “We are all French. Races do not count because you’re French, gender does not count because you’re French, sexual orientation doesn’t count because you are French, which is of course an illusion… The fact is that by erasing these differences, they make one particular situation as universal. That means Catholic, white, man. This is the universal and the other people must just shut up.”

There’s been progress since Les Dégommeuses began its work seven years ago. Noseda says people are a little more ready now to accept that the discourse around what French national identity should mean and who should get to play football is changing. And she thinks that if Les Bleues advance in the World Cup, it’s almost certain French people will take notice and start to engage. “I think that a victory really would fuel the engine,” she said. “Without a victory...” Noseda made a dubious humming sound at the prospect. And if the French do end up meeting the United States in the quarterfinals and are sent packing — at that Noseda made a distinctly French kind of noise, a distressed exhale that came out as pouffff.

“I have a hope and a fear,” says Noseda when asked what she wants the World Cup’s legacy to be for her country. “My hope is that the image of sports changes, that women are not criticized, because it’s still like this in France... The fear is that it’s going to be very temporary and that the progress we’ve been making in terms of media attention, in terms of a little bit of political attention — my fear is that if it’s not encouraged enough, it’s going to be just temporary, just a phase and then we go back.”