Algeria’s World Cup soccer team is a strange thing. Most of the players weren’t actually born in Algeria, and many of them don’t speak Arabic. In fact, an astonishing 17 of the 23 players on the Algerian squad were born in France – children of Algerian immigrants, who chose to play for the country of their parents instead of the country of their birth.
France’s national team could use some help. Their team, which in 2006 advanced to the World Cup finals, imploded this summer in a spectacular manner. France failed to advance past the first round and did not win a single game; in total, France’s prestigious squad scored one goal. Without the leadership of Zinedine Zidane, another son of Algerian immigrants, French soccer has struggled.
France has also struggled, like many continental European countries, to integrate its large population of non-white and often Muslim immigrants. Unlike the United States, French citizenship does not come with birth; one most demonstrate “sufficient Frenchness” and pass an interview. In practice, this means that an individual who was born in France, speaks French, and has lived in France for his or her entire life may still be denied French citizenship. A person whose grandparents immigrated to France might still not be considered a French citizen.
This hurts France. Its restrictive immigration and citizenship laws have created a large, expanding underclass of impoverished non-citizens. Many live in violent suburbs – banlieues – surrounding wealthy Paris. Forcibly cut off from the French mainstream and victims of heavy discrimination, the grievances of these individuals have expressed themselves through urban riots characterized by car-burnings.
It is from the banlieues that most of Algeria’s football squad comes from. Their decision to play for Algeria, instead of France, constitutes a powerful symbol of France’s continuing problems with integrating its ethic minorities.
France, judging by its performance – or lack thereof – in this year’s World Cup, needs these people. It needs children of immigrants, people like the great footballer Zinedine Zidane. If Mr. Zidane had decided to play for Algeria instead of France, as many people in like him are now choosing to do, France probably – certainly – would not have won the 1998 World Cup, or gotten second place four years ago.
To be fair, Algeria also did badly in the World Cup; it went 0-1-2, and the squad failed to score a single goal. But perhaps, if a couple of French-born first and second generation immigrants had decided to play for France instead of Algeria – perhaps France might have done a bit better. Perhaps it might have scored more than one goal. Perhaps it might have won a game. Perhaps it might even have advanced to the second round.
There is also a lesson for America here. A number of conservatives want a stricter, harsher regime on American immigrants; some propose stripping citizenship from the children of
illegal undocumented immigrants. They want, in other words, for the United States to become more like France.
Unless the United States wants to recreate France’s immigrant underclass, or experience a revival of the urban riots common during the 1960s and 1970s, these conservatives ought to carefully reconsider their stance. It would be a great loss, after all, if Alex Rodriguez or Mammy Ramirez decided to play for the Dominican Republic, instead of the United States.