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France's World Cup team is diverse, but the country has struggled with acceptance of immigrants

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Teams in the World Cup quarterfinals do not include the United States, but they do include France. And that successful French team is diverse. It includes many people who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, which is on the mind of a French filmmaker. Rokhaya Diallo says the French players are stars in that country, while other people of immigrant backgrounds are less accepted.

ROKHAYA DIALLO: It's the idea of the exception. Like, you have to be exceptional to be seen. Like, you cannot be just an average person and be considered as being part of the national fabric. You need to be the best hip-hop artist, the best actor, the best soccer player. It's very difficult to be seen and to be considered.

INSKEEP: Diallo spoke with A Martínez about a former colonial power that is now home to many people from countries it once controlled. That colonial history makes immigration different than it often feels in the United States.

DIALLO: One of the first differences is that for a person of color in France, the idea that the person is not truly French is very present, and many people have to justify being French, being born there, being part of the French. But for Black people, the idea that they don't belong is kind of different. Like, there is, of course, racism and inequalities, but it's not based on the idea that you are not part of the national fabric. And the other thing is that in France - look, the history of slavery, the colonial history, took place in territories that were and that still are overseas. So there is this idea that it didn't really happen because many people didn't witness what happened. In the U.S., it was, you know, in the country. It was part of the making of the country. So there is no way anyone can deny the fact that there was slavery and afterwards segregation.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

And this is, I guess, where the phrase representation matters kind of enters in here - right? - because if people see this team on television all the time doing well, I think that will kind of chip through any hesitation someone might have about accepting that France is a multicultural country.

DIALLO: Exactly. I think that it's meaningful to people in France seeing actually those players of color playing with also white players on the screens, because it normalizes the fact that France is a multicultural, multiethnic, multicolored country. And it also displays to other countries a face of a country that is kind of more inclusive. And to me, it's very important for France to display itself in a way that makes everyone feel that they belong.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, and I think a lot of this also is part of this larger question that I don't know if anyone has ever come up with an answer to, but is this - what makes a person blank? So what makes a person French? What makes a person Spanish? What makes a person British? You know, what makes a person American? That's a tough question to answer, or maybe does it even need an answer?

DIALLO: It's very difficult to define. And I don't think that there is one way of being French. And to me, what is most important to know who is French, who is Italian, who is British, is the self-identification. If someone feel that they are French, to me they are. It's not up to someone else to say that they are French. It's not a label that someone puts on your skin. It's something that you feel. And if you feel it, you can claim it.

MARTÍNEZ: Who would you say is expressing the most discomfort with the composition of the French soccer team? Is it elites? Is it just a population at large? Who would you say is expressing the most discomfort with this?

DIALLO: I'd say it's the elite. We've heard many intellectuals or philosophers or, you know, leaders of far-right parties saying that the team wasn't really displaying the real face of France. And I think that some people on the far-right side of the political landscape are using the football team to spread that very racist theory of great replacement, the idea that minorities would have come on purpose in Europe to replace the original population, the white population. So they use that team to say that we are not French anymore, meaning that French is white. And it's interesting because to me, the soccer team is just a reflection of the colonial history. Like, people didn't come randomly to France. If they were born in France, it's because the parents came, and the parents were in countries that had a bond with France because France invaded the countries of their parents or grandparents.

MARTÍNEZ: You wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post remembering the 1998 French World Cup winning team. You were a college student. You were in your twenties. And even though you weren't a big football fan back then, you wrote that that title made you happy and sad all at the same time. Tell us about that.

DIALLO: I was happy. Like, I went to the Champs-Elysees with everyone in France. We just, you know, took the subway or the cars to go and celebrate in the Champs-Elysees in Paris. But at the same time, being raised in Paris in a very multicultural part of Paris, I was sad to see people discovering us on TV and at the occasion of the winning of a World Cup. To me it was like, OK, so we did not exist for many people in France until some people who look like us won a World Cup. And it made me sad because I was like, OK, it takes so much to be recognized, to be accepted, to be celebrated, as, you know, French of color. And that's the reason why I was kind of disappointed of my fellow citizens, especially the journalists who were just discovering the true face of France because if you go to the subway, if you're walking in the French street, you will see many, many people who look like the players of the soccer team.

MARTÍNEZ: Was there a sense that the only value that Black players had to France was that they were able to help France win a title?

DIALLO: Black athletes are seen as, you know, being a source of muscle but not really people who would be into strategy, and to meet something that is very narrow - it's a narrowing way of seeing them and of, you know, celebrating them.

MARTÍNEZ: What are your hopes for better acceptance of football players of different backgrounds in France?

DIALLO: I think that the acceptance now is way better than it was, like, a decade ago. And I feel like in the younger generations - the generation of Kylian Mbappe, for example, who is one of the best players of the team - there is this idea that it's the norm to have a multiethnic and multicultural team and it's something that is accepted because it's seen as part of their daily life. So I think that the generational change will help.

MARTÍNEZ: That is activist, writer and filmmaker Rokhaya Diallo. Thank you very much.

DIALLO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.