French Body Files Complaint in National Soccer Coach Race Row

French Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno
French Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno. Photographer: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

An anti-discrimination organization filed a complaint over France’s handling of an investigation into a row over soccer quotas based on race.

The body claims the investigation that cleared Laurent Blanc, the French national soccer coach, was opaque and an attempt to bury the case. On May 10, Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno said the French Football Federation and Blanc didn’t break the law by discussing ways to limit players with foreign roots in France’s youth soccer training programs, even though it was “on the edge of being racist.”

“Was it a real investigation or a smokescreen aimed at creating an illusion or hiding the truth,” Louis-Georges Tin, the spokesman of CRAN, the Representative Council of Black Associations of France, wrote in Le Monde today.

The race-quotas case sparked controversy in France by bringing the country’s uneasy relationship with its immigrants to the soccer field. It evoked charges of racism from some former national team players and comes as immigration takes center stage in France’s political debate a year before the country’s presidential elections.

The ministry opened investigations after website Mediapart released a recording of a Nov. 8 meeting where Blanc and other FFF training staff discussed ways to have fewer players with double nationalities in France’s youth-training programs because they sometimes opt to play for another country. In the recordings, Blanc also complains that the predominance of black players in France has led to an overly physical style of play.

Calls for Resignation

In its last competitive match against Luxembourg on March 25, seven out the 11 French national team players were of African, Arab or Caribbean descent. In the 2009-10 season, 24 of 60 players in France’s youth training program opted to play for other countries, including Morocco, Poland, and Algeria.

Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira, who played with Blanc, 45, on France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team, last week called on their former teammate to resign. Vieira was born in Senegal.

An investigation by the ministry and a separate one by the FFF found no evidence of plans to impose quotas on players who might opt to play for countries other than France, Jouanno said at a press conference near Paris. Also, Blanc was present only once at discussions about foreign players, and wasn’t the one who brought up the subject, Jouanno said.

The idea of imposing quotas was discussed but “killed at birth,” Patrick Braouezec, a member of parliament who was one of two authors of the FFF’s report, said at a separate press conference on May 10.

Immigration Politics

The case comes against a backdrop of a harsher policy on immigration as France’s politicians gear up for the May 2012 presidential election. Last month, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the government will increase expulsion of undocumented aliens and plans to reduce the number of legal immigrants it admits each year.

The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy had until now focused on expelling people without residency papers and not touched the number of visas granted.

Jouanno said that football in France isn’t racist, and is one of the country’s best integrated institutions. She said the real issue is to understand why a player trained in France would choose another country.

“As a citizen, I regret that a French kid would prefer to represent another country,” Braouezec said. “But as long as FIFA rules allow it, it’s his right.”

FIFA Rules

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, changed its rules in 2009, allowing players to represent the country of their grandparents or parents, even if they’ve already represented another country at youth level.

Blanc has defended his comments.

“That some terms, used during a candid work meeting about a sensitive subject and taken out of their context, could be considered ambiguous, I certainly accept,” Blanc said in a statement April 30. “If I have hurt anyone, I apologize. But I can’t accept being accused of racism and xenophobia when I am against all forms of discrimination.”

Zinedine Zidane, the most famous player on the 1998 team and whose parents are Algerian, said in an interview with Journal de Dimanche that he was disappointed by Blanc’s comments, but that he shouldn’t be fired.

The sports ministry’s investigation was solely to determine if the law had been broken, not to decide the origin of the tape recording nor Blanc’s future, Jouanno said.

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