It’s been a month since the French football team won the World Cup for the second time in their history. At the time the response seemed phenomenal. In the streets of France, people hugged and danced with strangers. Over a million people gathered on the Champs-Elysées in Paris and in thousands of other cities and towns across the country. The last time a similar mobilisation had been seen was in response to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in January 2015.
But now all that can seem like ancient history. Social solidarity has splintered. The French President is mired in controversy over the violent behaviour of one of his employees, Alexandre Benalla. The country is divided over new anti-immigrant legislation. So were all the predictions that the victory of a multi-ethnic team might create a more inclusive, confident and generous nation – that it might expunge the traumas of terrorism – just wishful thinking?
More generally, is it true, as some of our studies show, that such a sense of unity lasts just a few days, or was the World Cup victory an event that can have longer lasting social significance?
Was the young French World Cup star Kylian Mbappé, right when he declared “for me, football is more than just a sport, it’s enough to see the impact it has on society” – and if so, what is the nature of that impact and how does it come about? In order to answer these questions, let us first consider how collective euphoria arises in the first place, and from there consider whether the effects can outlast the events that generate them.
Shared fate, shared identity, shared euphoria
A great theorist of nationhood, Benedict Anderson, made the point that a nation is an imagined community. One of the ways to “imagine” nation, Anderson suggested, is when we open our newspapers and imagine people across the country doing likewise, reading the same stories and reacting in the same way to stories of national triumphs or defeats.
Since Anderson wrote, less and less of us read a newspaper. Media audiences are increasingly fragmented. It is harder and harder to imagine others reading what we read let alone reacting as we do. But national sport is different. When our country wins at the World Cup, we can assume that others will share our euphoria. We sense a commonality of feeling. What is more, that makes it easier to interact with others, even strangers. Unlike everyday experience, we can enter the local shop that we have visited for years without ever talking to the shopkeeper, say “wasn’t that wonderful last night”, and be confident not only that the shopkeeper will understand what we mean, but also smile in agreement.
This is not mere speculation. Studies on collective emotions show that emotional entrainment, a feeling of affective attunement and emotional synchronization with others during rituals, increases during an international sports event.
Moreover, the effects don’t just end with the event. In an unpublished study conducted in New Zealand by the second author along with colleagues in Belgium, Australia and New Zealand before and after the 2016 Rugby World Cup final which the All Blacks won, people described how their interactions with strangers increased in quality and quantity after the All Blacks’ victory. Their sense of positivity and of well-being improved as much because of their sense of connection with other New Zealanders as because of the result itself.
To put it more formally, national sporting success gives rise to a sense of shared national identity and shared identity transforms social relations between people.
Frenchness: not just an idea
As has been shown in a range of research, it leads to greater trust, respect, cooperation, helping and solidarity. Moreover, the resultant sense of unity – that everyone is aligning their efforts and pulling together – is a source of collective empowerment. Members of a united group feel confident about their ability to thrive in a troubled world. Finally, the sense of connection in an increasing atomised world combined with the sense of efficacy in an increasingly perplexing world are a source of joy and excitement.
The key point here is that collective euphoria is not a result of losing identity and losing reason in the crowd, as Le Bon’s 1895 work on classical tradition of crowd psychology would suggest. Rather, such “effervescence” (to use Durkheim’s 1912 term) reflects the way that an imagined identity is made manifest in the crowd.
For the millions celebrating on the Champs-Elysées, Frenchness was not just an idea. It was an intense shared experience. But what happens to that identity when the celebrations end?
Defining the nation
Our own research on collective participation suggests that being part of the crowd can increase the significance of identity and identity related practices in everyday life. Just as being part of a religious crowd impacts religious identity, so being part of a national crowd may increase national identity. The implications of this are neither positive or negative in themselves, it depends on how the identity is understood, and what are the consequences of its definition, and how that definition is used.
There are two dimensions to this. The first has to do with the content of identity: concretely, what does it mean to be French? And what effect did the World Cup have on the way that Frenchness is understood? The answer to this questions is complex and multi-faceted. One key aspect of this, which must not be underplayed, has to do with gender.
As Stanford psychologist and former basketball player Mariah Burton Nelson wrote in 1994.
“We need to take sports seriously – not the scores or the statistics, but the process. Not to focus on who wins, but on who’s losing.”
In 2007 Michael Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, noted:
“Sport was a male-created homosocial cultural sphere that provided men with psychological separation from the perceived ‘feminisation’ of society, while also providing dramatic symbolic ‘proof’ of the natural superiority of men over women.”
It follows that, to define national identity through sport is to reinforce patriarchy across all sectors of society. Thus, whatever the result on the pitch, the result off the pitch is that women become the losers.
The hidden face of celebrating sport: abuse on women
This is certainly documented in the statistics on gender violence. As the cameras linger lovingly on World Cup celebrations, the spike in assaults on women is hidden. There is by now ample evidence that attacks on women increase during World Cup tournaments, and not just in France.
One striking study of domestic abuse in Lancashire (a county of approximately 1.5 million people in Northern England), across the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cup tournaments revealed a 26% increase in reports of domestic abuse when England won or drew, and a 38% increase when England lost. Abuse reached its peak when England exited the tournament. To cite a powerful campaign, aimed at raising consciousness of these issues in England during the 2018 World Cup: “If England gets beaten, so will she”. Certainly, any analysis of the impact of the World Cup which fails to address such gender issues will be not only deficient but complicit.
Boundaries of identity
The second dimension of identity definition has to do with the boundaries of identity: concretely, who is regarded as part of the nation and who is not. There is an intimate connection between national inclusion and collective action. The nature of collective responses to events is something like the proverbial canary in the cage, telling us who we do and don’t see as part of the national community. As the data suggests in our studies conducted after the French mobilisations after the terrorist attacks perpetrated in Paris in January 2015, the massive mobilisations after the attack on Charlie Hebdo derived from the fact that the magazine was held up as a quintessential French institution, enshrining free speech, irreverence and anti-authoritarianism, the French “Liberté”.
Millions encapsulated this by bearing and repeating the slogan “Je suis Charlie”. Yet after the attacks on a kosher grocery in Vincennes and on a policewoman – Clarissa Jean-Philippe – in Montrouge, the response was far more muted.
These were not seen as attacks on France and Frenchness (thus invoking a response across the nation) but on far narrower categories – Jews and police – whose place in the “nation” appeared to be perceived as far more ambivalent, certainly not emblematic.
On the other hand, the effects of massive affective mobilisations sweep off dissonant voices, as we already know from the unanimous support to the Patriot Act after 9/11, for example. In January 2015, there was little cost for those who failed to respond to the Vincennes or Montrouge attacks. But those who resisted identifying with “Je suis Charlie” were silenced during the mobilisation, excoriated and had their own Frenchness placed in question.
Similarly, in July 2018, staying away from the victory World Cup celebrations and denouncing the many sexist assaults on women during those celebrations was discouraged and frowned upon.
What it means to be French
But it is not only that collective action reflects a pre-existing sense of national identity. It also serves to form national identity. If the celebrating crowd is the imagined national community made manifest, can we read off from the nature of the crowd (and the team which it celebrates) who is French and what it means to be French?
One is either French or one isn’t. As the French ambassador to the US recently put it “to us, there is no hyphenated identity”. Apparently, one cannot be African-French, one is either African or French.
As a result, it becomes difficult for players – and those in the wider population as well – to celebrate both their heritage and their nationhood. To be fully part of the celebrations, to join fully in the crowd and the nation, they have to give something up. As the acculturation literature shows, that creates a serious impediment to integration.
Another tack has been to celebrate the French victory as a victory of immigrants. In a world of increasing anti-immigrant sentiment and agitation, there is something very beguiling about a “good news” story showing how migrants contribute to the nation. What could be more powerful than the fact that 80% of the French team were of African origin to support the argument that immigrants should be welcomed and cherished rather than rejected and feared? But to argue that immigrants are good for the nation is very different from arguing that immigrants are of the nation. To argue that the World Cup is a victory of immigrants is to imply that players whose parents come from Africa are not entirely French.
So, the ability of the World Cup victory to create a kinder vision of Frenchness is, at least in part, constrained by existing conceptions. Either one is French and so not African, or else one is an African immigrant and so not entirely French. Neither option is wholly satisfactory.
Arguing for the future
What, then, does all this mean for the future? What will the effect of the World Cup victory be on French society, if any? By now, it is hopefully clear that this is the wrong question – or at least, that it implies too deterministic a view of social processes.
The core of our argument is that the social impact of the World Cup, both in relation to the short term celebrations and longer term effectiveness, is achieved through the way that it shapes national identity.
What the World Cup represents is a resource that can be used to help tell a national story. It is clearly something of relevance to the nation and it is clearly an exemplar national triumph. By weaving the victory into one’s story of France, one clearly gains an edge. At the same time, there are multiple ways of relating how the World Cup relates to France and about how the French triumph was achieved. We need to be well aware of the potential toxicity of some of these narratives – which, for instance, root national achievement in masculinity and physical domination. We need to be equally aware of the potential progress which some narratives can achieve – for instance, by rooting national achievement in the recognition and celebration of diversity. Finally, we need to be aware of how World Cup narratives relate to other discourses of national identity (such as le républicanisme) and how these constrain or else enable what can be said.
There is nothing pre-determined about which narrative will prevail. But one thing is for sure. If we ignore the World Cup and if we refrain from arguing over national identity we abandon the field to others whose political projects may not be our own.