Algerian football fans spark national identity debate in France


Thousands of people partied in the streets when Algeria won its quarter-final of the African Cup of Nations on 11 July and then again for the semi-final on 14 July, but the celebrations were later marred by pillaging and street clashes. Clashes with police in the early hours, following pillaging the week before, saw more than 200 people arrested, leading to condemnation from the government, as well as far-right politicians.

The fact that the semi-final coincided with Bastille Day, which celebrates the French republic and its armed forces, irked nationalist politicians in particular who worry about the effects of immigration. "Like lots of French people, I was shocked to see French people take down the French flag and put up the Algerian one," far-right politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan said on Friday morning. Dupont-Aignan said the French-born Algeria fans, many of whom have dual nationality, could "go back" to north Africa if their preference was for the country of their parents or grandparents. "I want to ask these young people, who are a minority I hope: France has welcomed you, fed you, educated you, looked after you, but if you prefer Algeria, if it's better than France, go back to Algeria!"

SOS Racism, a charity, condemned his comments as unacceptable and designed to "create a chasm between people."

Violence has flared in France in the past after major football games involving Algeria including during World Cup games in 2014, which led far-right leader Marine Le Pen to propose stripping rioters of their French nationality. "Their victories are our nightmare," a spokesperson for Le Pen's National Rally party, Sebastien Chenu, said on Monday. "Whenever there's a match with Algeria... there are problems."

A France-Algeria friendly in 2001 in Paris saw the French national anthem copiously booed in what was the first meeting on the pitch between the countries since Algeria's independence in 1962.

Paris police have dismissed a demand from the National Rally for Algeria fans to be barred from the Champs-Elysees on Friday as impractical and unfair. "For me, the people coming to the Champs-Elysees are joyous citizens," police chief Lallement told the press conference. Many businesses along the famous avenue were taking no chances, however, with workers putting up wood and steel sheeting across the windows of shops and restaurants ahead of kick-off on Friday.

The match in Cairo is a testament to the enduring human ties between France and Algeria which was ruled from Paris for 130 years. Algeria's squad features more than a dozen Franco-Algerians, while captain Riyad Mahrez was born and grew up in the multi-ethnic Sarcelles suburb north of Paris. Djamel Belmadi, Algeria's coach, was also born in a Parisian suburb, Champigny-sur-Marne, – and became friends there with Senegal's coach Aliou Cisse, who arrived in France aged nine. Others stress that the overwhelming majority of fans in France marked Algeria's last two victories in the Africa Cup peacefully and that many Franco-Algerians feel free to celebrate the successes of both countries.

"There are always groups of hooligans for every sports event who come and create chaos. We shouldn't exaggerate this violence," Karim Amellal, a French writer and academic with family roots in Algeria, told AFP. But he acknowledged that some Franco-Algerians brandished their attachment to north Africa due to their sense of exclusion from France, which has struggled over decades to integrate its large Muslim population and come to terms with its colonial past. "It's about anger, a feeling of being a victim of ghettoisation, of forgotten history, the history of their parents," he said.  (AFP)

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