What France can learn from an Algerian football victory

In the Arab Cup, fans and players displayed a unique politics of inclusion that defies divisive colonial policies.

Algeria defeated Tunisia in the Arab Cup final in Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor, Qatar on December 18, 2021 [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

On December 18, football fans in Algeria and across the region celebrated the national team’s victory in the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup held in Qatar. Meanwhile in Paris, the “City of Light”, Algeria supporters were being violently assaulted by French police and arrested by the dozens.

The Paris Police Prefecture banned “supporters of football teams from Algeria, Egypt, Qatar, or Tunisia, or those behaving as such” from gathering in an established parameter around the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées. The order was made in anticipation of celebrations that would follow either a Tunisian or Algerian victory in the Arab Cup Final.

This was in stark contrast to the measures French police took to accommodate festivities following France’s 2018 World Cup victory. Rather than banning fans, the then-police chief welcomed them to the Champs-Élysées and ordered a police perimeter for their protection instead.

That the French police would resort to racial profiling under the guise of ensuring “public safety” is hardly surprising. Yet to criminalise “behaving Arab” represents a strikingly candid form of racial discrimination.

Clearly, in France, it is “liberté, égalité, et fraternité”, unless, of course, you are of Arab or African descent. It is a country where generations of marginalised communities originating in former colonies have been subjected to over-policing and surveillance, racist vitriol from establishment politicians, and systemic barriers to work, education, and public life, such as the various veil bans and closures of Muslim mosques and organisations.

The attempts by Algeria fans to celebrate in Paris despite the police ban, then, should be seen as a form of protest and resistance to what it means to be Arab, Muslim, Maghrebi, or Black in France. Underlying this protest is also a critique of the racial logic that underpins the post-colonial notion of Frenchness.

This was demonstrated by the degree of support received by the Algerian team, which played in the Arab Cup. Called the A’ team, it is made up of players solely from within Algerian or other Arab domestic leagues, who have no formal contractual ties to France at all. While the “first team”, which competes in the African Cup and the World Cup, often relies on players who were either developed or currently play in French and other European domestic leagues, this Arab Cup team is a fully “independent” one.

For example, the importance of Amir Sayoud – who started his career in the Algerian clubs ES Guelma and ES Sétif before going on to play for historic clubs USM Alger and CR Belouzdad – scoring the game winner in the final match – and not, say, Manchester City’s $8.3m star, Riyad Mahrez – was not lost on supporters.

This is because, for many, the A’ team has come to represent a rejection of one of the main features of neocolonialism – the former colonies’ continued dependence upon and domination by colonial powers even after formal independence.

In addition to this pride in national achievement, celebrations among North African supporters demonstrated a remarkable politics of inclusion throughout the tournament. Fans at the Al-Bayt Stadium in Al Khor City, where the final match was played, carried banners with flags of all participant nations stitched together. In both the Tunisia and Algeria stands, fans carried flags of  Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia side by side, symbolically representing the Grand Maghreb. Supporters also waved the Amazigh flag alongside national flags.

Perhaps most notably, fans throughout the tournament made a point to hoist the Palestinian flag highest of all. One of Algeria’s most celebrated players during the tournament, Youcef Belaïli – who developed as a youth player in the Algerian domestic league with MC Oran – requested a Moroccan flag from fans and held it up with the Algerian and Palestinian flags. And after the final match, Algeria Coach Madjid Bougherra said, “We dedicate the Arab Cup to the Palestinian people and our people in Gaza.”

At the core of this politics of inclusion on display during the Arab Cup is a resistance to the legacy of the European colonial policy of divide and conquer which created the modern national borders and then sowed divisions within the various nation-states.

While the French authorities have tried to present Maghrebi citizens and immigrants as separatists, it is in fact the logic of colonial modernity that employs division and exclusion.

In contrast, the spirit of resistance among Algerians in France and the politics of inclusion among many of the fans and players at the tournament have demonstrated nothing but a profound sense of flexibility of borders and a welcoming of the margins.

Additionally, the players have shown that they are not simply gladiators at the beck and call of the state, but rather, are ambassadors with political and historical agency. They are helping to envision a future that celebrates the uniqueness of the national experience, accompanied by a deep sense of inclusion.

The lesson and challenge the Algerian victory poses to all – including to those leaders in France who seek to ban celebrations – is expanding the notion of belonging to make the border between the self and the other porous and to cultivate an ethic of coming “to know one another”. This ethic is tied to a politics of resistance, as demonstrated by the Maghrebi supporters in Paris, who resisted those edicts that seek to exclude and expel them from public space.

In my own country, Algeria, this politics and ethics should challenge us to consider our own attitude towards migrants and the refugees, which has not always been welcoming, and to expand our spirit of inclusivity not just across the Maghreb and all the way to Palestine – as we must – but also south towards the rest of the African continent.

While French President Macron has spoken of the shared history between the north and the south of the Mediterranean, one may ask why the celebrations of “supporters of football teams from Algeria, Egypt, Qatar, or Tunisia” could not be a cause for French celebration, as well.

In France, the politics of inclusion on display will surely be a cause for consternation among the political establishment, which watches its race-baiting right-wing candidates fight to outdo each other in racist vitriol. But this demonstration of inclusion during the Arab Cup could also offer them an opportunity for reflection.

For what the display of inclusion by players and fans is demonstrating is that the former colonies are no longer willing to subscribe to divisionary colonial and nationalist politics. The possibilities that embracing a politics of inclusion could bring about could be profound.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.