Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The French Dream

The French had invested a lot in Zinédine Zidane, in terms of representing France not just in the way all sports heroes make their countries proud but also of representing a certain idea – OK, a fantasy – of France as a well-integrated, tolerant and faultlessly high-minded society. A place where on the rough streets of Marseille the son of immigrants learns to play soccer, and the more he learns the more his soccer-loving patrie encourages and reveres him, and wishes ever more keenly to make him one of its own; and in the glow of this adoration he learns not just to be a great footballer but also to be French. To be reasoned and articulate, civic-minded, formally engaged in his society. And as a man – transformation complete, voilà – he evinces both of these, shall we say, talents in full view of the world.

Call it the French dream.

The problem with this idea of France and this idea of Zidane – these twin fantasies – is that of course being fantasies they are not true. But in some senses they are nearly true, agonizingly almost true, and they are so noble that people may be forgiven for deeply yearning for them to be true, even pretending that they are true, and because for all that strain they still aren't true this state of affairs is nothing less than tragic.

Last November in the suburbs the fantasy of French society broke down and last Sunday in Berlin the fantasy of Zinédine Zidane broke down. In a moment, Zidane was no longer the French man playing the ultimate match of his glorious career, he was the immigrant kid playing a street game in the concrete jungle where he grew up; a place where doubtless milder insults than the one he heard were ample provocation for sharper retaliation than a head-butt to the chest.

But isn't that what made Zidane a great player? His ability to thrive in the ghetto, to navigate crowds of rough-playing street kids – arms, elbows, shoulders swinging – and forge a clear path to the goal? Isn't that what made Zidane a great Frenchman? To come from outside and, with great strain and ruthless determination, to find a way in?

The French dream.

Planting your head in an opponent's chest is not, in and of itself, excusable. Surely Zidane knows that more than anyone else. But can he be forgiven? The question is whether the French can reconcile the two Zidanes: their fantasy of Zidane and the flawed, great man that he is. To do so they must address their fantasy of France. It is not a tidy nation where people of all colors meekly and gratefully aspire to Cartesian virtues. It is a difficult, tumultuous, stubborn place where with a little effort anyone might be heard above the din.

Jacques Chirac's predictable plaudits actually express well what Zidane might hope to someday regain from his nation: "You are... a man of heart, commitment, conviction. That's why France admires and loves you."

The French dream, indeed.