On Wednesday, a controversy brewing in the world of French soccer got political. The ruling Socialist Party (PS) issued a statement condemning comments made by Willy Sagnol, coach of the Bordeaux soccer team. In a filmed interview with the local periodical Sud Ouest, Sagnol stated:
The advantage of the typical African player is that he is not expensive when you take him, he’s generally ready to fight and he is powerful on the pitch. But soccer isn’t just that. Soccer is also about technique, intelligence, discipline. You need everything. Nordic [players] too, they’re good, they have a good mentality.
Sagnol’s supporters were quick to attribute the comments to a mere lack of tact. Sud Ouest ran a feature Tuesday defending the Bordeaux coach, with the headline “why there is no Sagnol controversy.” Nonetheless, the coach’s comments have been accused by many of being racist, and the issue has heated up on French social media. SOS Racism, France’s most prominent anti-racism association, castigated Sagnol for “crassly associating blacks and Nordics with being physical and intelligent, respectively.” Now, the scandal has taken on a political cast, with the PS calling for the French soccer federation to impose sanctions on the coach, as well as a public apology.
This is not the first time the government has waded into an issue involving sports and racial tensions – in 2010, an official inquiry cleared the then coach of the national soccer team, Laurent Blanc, of alleged involvement in discussions on imposing quotas on the number of black and Arab players. Yet, that the PS has issued a public condemnation of what is all in all a minor controversy is surprising.
Here, embattled party leaders may be searching for a quick (and vocal) way to deflect attention from their lackluster performance, i.e., inability to combat a stagnating economy and high unemployment, not to mention stand in contrast to the UMP, France’s major opposition party, and the far-right Front National (FN) – both have been embroiled in controversy over racist statements this year. Indignation over Sagnol’s comments also offers a way to rebound after PS leader and French President Francois Hollande flubbed a more high-profile scandal surrounding racist propos directed at Justice Minister Christiane Taubira. (The Elysée issued a statement of support for Taubira, but only after an embarrassing period of inaction.)
But with approval ratings for Hollande and the party alike at dismal lows, the PS will have to do much more to positively demarcate itself. With the Sagnol scandal likely to dissipate in a week or two, so will the Socialists’ moral high ground.