By CELESTINE BOHLEN
Published: January 4, 2013
PARIS — What do bananas have to do with national identity? A lot, if you consider the bananas hurled at black soccer players in different parts of Europe, igniting outrage among international players and feeble calls for tolerance by coaches.
When racist behavior is exhibited by individuals, it can be written off — not excused — as random, individual acts of hooliganism. In northern Italy this past week, the Milan soccer team walked off the field after fans of the opposing team yelled abuse at black teammates. But when the verbal equivalent appears in a manifesto published by a powerful fan club, the crude clash between “them” and “us” falls squarely in the middle of a recurring debate about national identity that makes Europe feel like a continent under siege.
In fact, it came as no surprise when Landscrona, the biggest fan club of the Zenit soccer team in St. Petersburg, recently published an open letter saying it would not accept dark-skinned players being “all but forced down Zenit’s throat.” St. Petersburg fans have long been accused of preventing club managers from signing up black players, a fact that the letter confirmed in writing: “For us, the absence of black Zenit players is an important tradition that underlines the team’s identity and nothing more,” it said.
There it is, “identity,” a word that gets flashed like a red card as people struggle to determine what it means to be French, Belgian, British or Russian in an era of large-scale immigration, and economic globalization.
The problem is that this debate typically turns defensive, with identity defined in narrow, exclusive terms. The issue may be a reflection of a popular uneasiness over waves of new arrivals from abroad, but the terms of the discussion are rarely about integration, or tolerance.
In France, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy started a febrile — and largely futile — debate on the state of the nation’s identity in 2009. It was a flop right from the start as critics questioned the usefulness of any discussion set in motion by a presidential decree.
Fans throw bananas at black soccer players
Soon afterward, and not coincidentally, the government started another national debate, this one about the role of Islam in France. The main result was a law banning face coverings — including Muslim veils like the niqab and the burqa — in public places. Whatever the merits of the law, it was hardly a rallying call for the country’s largely Muslim immigrant population, which was ostensibly the target of the double-barreled exercise.
Similar attempts to define and affirm the Russian national identity have slid either toward irrelevance, or toward a dangerous kind of ethnic-center nationalism, with slogans like “Russia for Russians. ”
In 2005, Russia resurrected an old holiday on Nov. 4, called Day of National Unity, which falls on the anniversary of the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612. The day is marked by a hodgepodge of demonstrations, brandishing a variety of symbols from Orthodox icons to the Soviet hammer and sickle.
It is hard to see how these demonstrations speak to a country made up of more than 100 ethnic groups, including Muslim Tatars and Chechens, as well as Buddhist Buryats.
Both the French debate and the Russian holiday make no attempt to appeal to recent immigrants who need help in identifying with their adopted nation. The instinct to hit history’s “replay” button — revisiting the glories of Alexander Nevsky, or Napoleon — may help educate the new arrivals about the past, but it doesn’t give them the tools they need to become modern citizens.
Immigration has changed the face of many European countries over the past half-century. In France, the new arrivals — mostly from former colonies — have put a strain on the old model of integration that worked so well with immigrants from Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, too, has seen waves of workers coming from Central Asia, whose presence, legal and illegal, has stirred latent strains of xenophobia.
These tensions give a backdrop to the racist screed of soccer fans in St. Petersburg. It is all the more jarring in a city that was founded as Russia’s “window on Europe,” where leaders of the French Enlightenment were invited to the court of Catherine the Great and that was home to Russia’s most beloved national poet, Alexander Pushkin, whose grandfather was a black man from Africa.
Landscrona fans don’t seem to care about passports, just race. Of the two dark-skinned players whose arrival seems to have incited the manifesto, one, Axel Witsel, is Belgian with a French father who comes from the Caribbean island of Martinique.
Their demands are weirdly specific, directly contradicting the explicit denial of racism. “We only want players from other brotherly Slav nations such as Ukraine and Belarus, as well as from the Baltic states and Scandinavia,” the manifesto read, which blithely ignored the origins of Dick Advocaat, the Dutchman who coached the team to victory in Russian championships in 2007, and Luciano Spalletti, an Italian who is now the Zenit coach.
In his response to the fans, published on the team’s Web site, Spalletti ignored the implicit insult. “Being tolerant means that you fight against any kind of stupidity,” he wrote.