How the rise of a right winger led to the bitter end for a local football club

Author: By John Lichfield

They were a group of friends, in their mid-20s, with names like Brice and Aymeric, but also Nabil and Majid.

Inspired by France’s multi-racial football team which won the World Cup in 1998, they started a club of their own, in a village near Angoulème in the south west. This week that club died of shame.

The far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, topped the poll last Sunday in Dirac, the village which gave the team a pitch, an annual subsidy of ?2,200 (about £1,350) and its name. The players have decided unanimously to disband in protest against the village vote at the end of this season in two weeks’ time.

Brice Labarde, 25, president and centre-half for the club, said: “We can’t carry on playing under the name of a place where Le Pen led the poll. It’s a question of morality.”

Is the spirit of 1998 ? the extraordinary outpouring of multi-racial joy on the streets of France at the triumph of a multi-racial national team ? now dead? Mr Labarde and other members of his club insist that the spirit lives on, in their own little club and many other places. That is why they have decided to take a stand.

Others are not sure. “The politicians thought they had solved all the problems through football,” said the anti-racist campaigner, Mouloud Aounit. “In fact, the effect lasted about as long as the fireworks.”

What of the France team of 1998, itself? What do Les Bleus think of Mr Le Pen’s electoral success, a few weeks before many of them travel to Japan and Korea as favourites to retain their title?

The 2002 World Cup squad will, like its predecessor, bring together players whose families originated all over the world. Patrick Vieira and Marcel Desailly were born in Africa; the families of Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram came from the West Indies; Zinedine Zidane’s parents are from the kabyle (berber) community in Algeria; Youri Djorkaef’s origins are in Armenia and David Trezeguet’s in Argentina. There will also be players from almost every European ethnic component of the French: Bixente Lizarazu from the Basque country, Emmanuel Petit from Normandy, Fabien Barthez from Languedoc.

One by one, some national team members, past and present ? not all ? have begun to make their feelings known. Some like, Bernard Lama, reserve goalkeeper in 1998, now retired, whose father came from Guadeloupe, have reacted with anger and pessimism.

“There is a lot of discontent and many people living in misery and Le Pen has been able to exploit all the social evils,” Mr Lama, a supporter of President Jacques Chirac, said in a newspaper interview this week. “The values we stood for in 1998 have been blown apart.”

Perhaps, the most thoughtful comments came from the France team captain, Marcel Desailly, who was born in Ghana and was adopted ? with his whole family ? by a French diplomat when he was five years old.

“Like the vast majority of the French, I am shocked,” he wrote on his personal web site. “I just hope that on 5 May (the second round) the French come to their senses and vote massively against (Le Pen).” Mr Desailly, now playing for Chelsea, went on to say that the multi-racial nature of the France team ? once mocked by Mr Le Pen as “artificial” and unpatriotic ? had finally proved to be its strength. “Multi-racialism is also the strength of France, as a whole,” he said.

Against this background, the decision by a multi-racial village football team to disband in protest against the far-right has gained a symbolic significance far beyond anything the team has ever achieved on the pitch.

The team ? L’Amicale Laique de Dirac ? won every game in the local Sunday league last season and is in third place in the second division of the departemental (county) league in Charente this season. Despite this modest success, games had a regular attendance of just two people.

“That’s what annoyed us as well,” said Aymeric Moceur, 22, a student and one of the white players in the team. “We felt a wall of hostility against us, not an acceptance that we were trying to build something. In any case, the strong Le Pen vote in this village is inexcusable. What’s their problem? A hen or chicken may go missing once in a while, stolen by gypsies. Otherwise, this is a very quiet place.”

Other club members refused to write off the hopeful, positive effects of the 1998 World Cup triumph. They said that the success of their team, and the fact that all 25 club members agreed spontaneously and unanimously to protest against the Le Pen vote, showed that resistance to racism was strong in France.

“Just like the French national team, with Zinedine Zidane and others, we are a team of all races and colours,” said Nabil Benrekta. “My father, who was born in Algeria, fought to defend France in 1940 and now the country votes for a xenophobe. We had to do something.”

The decision of the club to disband has caused great annoyance in Dirac, population 1,300, and not just among National Front voters. The mayor, Roland Franchet, 65, a retired farmer, pointed out that Mr Le Pen scored only 14.5 per cent of the vote in the village ? 109 votes, compared to 106 for the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and 102 for President Jacques Chirac.

This meant, he said, that the overwhelming majority of the village ? 86 per cent ? did not vote for Mr Le Pen. Equally, he pointed out, 80 per cent of the French people had not voted for the far right last Sunday and would probably vote for President Chirac next Sunday.

“It is fine gesture on their part but a little cavalier,” said Mr Franchet, who is politically non-aligned. “The people here don’t appreciate being lumped all together as fascists. Especially, by a group of young people who don’t come from here, or in many cases did not bother to vote on Sunday and now regret it.”

He has a point. The spirit of ’98 was perhaps exaggerated but so too, perhaps, has been the 17 per cent vote for Mr Le Pen on “Black Sunday” last week. If Mr Le Pen is comprehensively rejected in next Sunday’s vote and the united nations of Les Bleus win the World Cup again in June, the level of support for the xenophobic far right in France may be seen in its true context.

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