by John Lichfield
Tuesday, 15
June 2021
Explainer
16:14

How Karim Benzema became a political football

Marine Le Pen is attacking a footballer who snubbed Algeria for France
by John Lichfield
Karim Benzema is no paper Frenchman

Like England before them, the France football team will play their opening match in the European championships this evening amid a media-political row about race.

Les Bleus will take the knee against racism before they take on Germany in Munich. But that is not the only issue enraging — synthetically for the most part — the French Far Right.

Two other identitarian footballs have been kicked into play by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.  The first is the fact that one of the most successful strikers in world football, Karim Benzema, has been recalled to the France squad after a six-year exile.

Does Le Pen think that Benzema, 33, is past his best? No. Does her party think that Benzema has yet to explain satisfactorily his apparent involvement in an attempt to blackmail a team-mate with “une sex-tape” in 2016?  Yes, but that is not their main complaint.

They protest that Benzema is a “paper Frenchman” who may have been born in the Lyon suburbs but regards himself as Algerian.

This accusation is based on a distortion of a Benzema interview from 2006, in which he said that his heart was partly Algerian and partly French but that he had chosen to play for France and was “proud” to do so.

The second Lepennist complaint is that a rap song was chosen as the French anthem of the 2021 championship. The song appeals for national unity in support of a team drawn from “des campagnes et des quartiers” (the countryside and public housing estates). Le Pen’s deputy, Jordan Benalla, says that it represents a surrender to “racaille” (scum).

It is perfectly true that many young people in the multi-racial suburbs have a schizophrenic attitude to the France football team. They celebrate its successes; they also support the team of their country of origin.

Some very talented French footballers choose to play for the nation of their parents or grand-parents. The latest to do so is Hannibal Mejbri, 18, born in the Paris suburbs, a rising star at Manchester United, who made his debut this month for Tunisia.

Revealingly, however, Le Pen’s party chooses to attack a great footballer who snubbed Algeria and chose to wear the blue of France.

Marine Le Pen has cleaned up the family business. She can no longer say, as her father Jean-Marie did in 1996, that there are too many black and brown faces in the France team.

Attacking Benzema is a way of saying so — without saying so.

Join the discussion


  • Shall we get it right. The reason why player chose to play for countries like France and England rather than their country of origin is because they follow the money.
    I think it is perfectly reasonable to question the selection of a player who is ambivalent about the country

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