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FEATURE French South America tour beset by off-field issues to mirror political tumult at home

French South America tour beset by off-field issues to mirror political tumult at home
1 week ago

France beat Argentina in the first of three Tests in South America this month, but that result is the only positive aspect of a tour that has gone badly wrong.

On Tuesday morning it was revealed that two of the French squad have been arrested and are under investigation for a violent sexual assault committed in their hotel after the victory in Mendoza.

One of the players who featured in the 28-13 win over the Pumas has already returned home in disgrace. Full-back Melvyn Jaminet was thrown out of the tour after making disparaging comments about ‘Arabs’ on a social media post.

The French Rugby Federation said Jaminet’s words were ‘unacceptable and are contrary to the fundamental values of our sport’.

The Toulon player has apologised for his comments, saying he was ‘ashamed’ of his words and adding: ‘Racism, in all its forms, is unacceptable and goes against everything I believe in.’

This is not the first time in recent years that a prominent French rugby player has been accused of racism.

Melvyn Jaminet
As a French player, Melvyn Jaminet is a role model and despite an apology there is a  doubt whether he’ll play at Test level again (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/Getty Images)

There was unease in some quarters last year when the Montpellier second-row, Bastien Chalureau, was called into France’s RWC squad to replace the injured Paul Willemse.

The 31-year-old had been handed a six-month suspended prison sentence in 2020 for an assault the court decided was racially motivated. Chalureau had his contract terminated by Toulouse after the verdict but, while he admitted the assault, he denied there was a racist element to it. He launched an appeal, which was heard shortly after the RWC, and a court agreed that it was not a racist attack.

In 2021 Ludovic Radosavljevic, the former Clermont and Castres scrum-half, was banned for 26 weeks for racially abusing Christian Ambadiang while playing for Provence in the ProD2.

The latest incident involving Melvyn Jaminet is acutely embarrassing for the FFR at a time when France is politically very charged.

The latest incident involving Melvyn Jaminet is acutely embarrassing for the FFR at a time when France is politically very charged. President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap parliamentary election at the start of last month was prompted by the success of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party in the European Elections.

Thought the party has lost some of its malodorous reputation since the days it was led by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie – who was convicted multiple times of anti-Semitism – it is still associated with the far-right by France’s ethnic minorities.

In the run-up to the parliamentary elections a number of players in the France football squad urged the public not to vote for the National Rally, among them Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembélé and Marcus Thuram. ‘We must tell everyone to go and vote,’ said Thuram. ‘We all need to fight daily so that this doesn’t happen and that the National Rally [party] does not succeed.’

For years the French football team has been richly diverse in its ethnicity, which hasn’t been to everyone’s liking. During the 1996 European Championships in England, Jean-Marie Le Pen said of the French team: “It is a bit artificial to bring in players from abroad and call it the French team…most players in the French team don’t sing [the national anthem] and don’t even know it.”

France national team
The French football team were outspoken to stop a far-right government being voted in last week (Photo Daniela Porcelli/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Le Pen was criticised for his comments at the time, and then ridiculed when this squad of players won the World Cup in France in 1998, an event that united the country in joy.

But there is one lack of diversity in the French football team that no one disputes: most players come from northern France, traditionally the industrial half of the country. Rugby, on the other hand, dominates in the south, particularly in the rural agricultural regions.

During last year’s RWC, the right-wing French politician Eric Zemmour included an image of a French rugby shirt in a party political broadcast video. The implication was clear: rugby is the sport of la France profonde, unchanging France, the country of pastis and pétanque.

The right-wing weekly magazine, Valeurs Actuelles, featured Antoine Dupont on its cover during the World Cup. The feature inside described rugby as a ‘deep-rooted sport that has become a model for society’ with its ‘well-behaved supporters, patriotic players and exemplary values’.

Dupont did not take kindly to being associated with the magazine and he made his displeasure known.

this cliché of rugby as the sport for the people of the soil is an appealing one for some right-wing politicians. They pitch rugby as the sport of traditional values played by traditional Frenchmen. By which they mean white Frenchmen.

Rugby in France has made significant progress in recent years in broadening its appeal outside its traditional heartlands. A decade ago I visited the Sarcelles club in northern Paris to see how rugby was helping bring together local children of different religions and origins. Sarcelles was proud to count among its old boys Rabah Slimani, Sekou Macalou and Judicaël Cancoriet, all of whom have been capped by France.

Nonetheless, rugby in France remains rooted in the south, and its image, however stereotypical, is that of a game played by men of the earth. In a book written 20 years ago, the writer Jean Lacouture, described rugby as ‘an opera of gestures, a way of life, a certain contour and colour of the landscape… the taste of mushrooms, of confit of goose and of [eating] woodpigeon the evening of a match … rugby is our country’.

This is a cliché that I never encountered when I played two seasons for a club in the deep south of France. I’d have a couple of beers after a game but I can’t ever remember tucking into woodpigeon.

But this cliché of rugby as the sport for the people of the soil is an appealing one for some right-wing politicians. They pitch rugby as the sport of traditional values played by traditional Frenchmen. By which they mean white Frenchmen.

Mourad Boudjellal
Mourad Boudjellal, the Moroccan owner of Toulon will take a very dim view of Jaminet’s behaviour (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The FFR must challenge this cliché, as it does, and keeping promoting rugby as a sport for everyone, whatever their sex or their ethnicity.

No one was more upset by Jaminet’s comments than Mourad Boudjellal, the former owner of Toulon who has done so much this century to regenerate the club. Describing himself as hurt and upset by the remarks, Boudjellal said ‘I remind him that when the club was in Pro D2, it was what he calls an Arab who came to put his money, his time and his life into getting it back into the Top 14 and winning titles.’

Boudjellal began pumping his money into Toulon in 2006, the same year that a seven-year-old started playing in the club’s junior section. His name was Melvyn Jaminet.

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Comments

5 Comments
J
John 11 days ago

Given that one of French rugby’s biggest benefactors is Mohed Altrad, from Syria, I’m sure most rugby fans appreciate what immigrants contribute. Not only does he own Montpellier and is the main shirt sponsor for the national team, but he employs something like 20,000 French people. Yes, there is good and bad in every race and creed, but let’s start giving the other side of the story.

f
finn 11 days ago

decent article - I do worry though that it can be all too easy to juxtapose the image of the traditional white (racist) rugby player with that of the modern, cosmopolitan sportsman who (like Dupont) distances himself from racism and openly espouses progressive (eg. pro-LGBT) stances.

Modern liberal cosmopolitanism has taken a kicking globally in recent years, in part because its values are very rarely given positive justification, and so their constant re-affirmation can come across as performative and deeply patronising. In large part though, the reaction has been driven by the recognition that racial violence is by no means the unique property of the right.

For many Arabs racial violence is not a question of whether or not Jaminet might headbutt them, but whether or not western states will continue bombing their schools and hospitals. The alliance between rugby and global capitalism, the willingness to accept investment from the US and Israel, and the close association of the RFU with the British militiary, are much more problematic than one video a player made while drunk.

f
finn 11 days ago

“rugby is the sport of la France profonde, unchanging France, the country of pastis and pétanque.”

would pétanque not be the sport of the country of pétanque? 😜

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