BBeneath the gray buildings of the poor suburb of Bondy, northeast of Paris, echoed a familiar sound of summer afternoons: the thud of a soccer ball against the concrete while children played in courtyards stoned.
But the French flags hanging from car windows, the banner supporting the France football team on a street corner and the children proudly wearing French football shirts showed a new sense of excitement. “Kylian Mbappé for the president,” shouted a 10-year-old boy with a ball.
It was here in Bondy that Mbappé, France’s 19-year-old World Cup hero, was born, raised and played his first games.
As France prepare to face Croatia in the final, Mbappé’s hero-worship has shone the spotlight on the poor in Paris suburbs. Several star players grew up on the outskirts of the capital, including N’Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba. The outpouring of pride is a welcome change for ethnically diverse regions which, more than a decade after the 2005 riots, are still so stigmatized and discriminated against that one politician this year warned of “a new apartheid”.
French politics have traditionally exerted extraordinary pressure on the national football team to be a standard bearer of the country’s identity and a magical solution to societal ills. It is now considered political folly to expect Zinedine Zidane’s multi-ethnic 1998 World Cup winning team – mythologized as ‘Black-Blanc-Beur’ (Black-White-Arab) – solved France’s deep-seated identity issues 20 years ago simply by winning a tournament.
Four years after 1998’s ‘rainbow’ team was touted as a balm for race relations, far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen – who complained of too many blacks on the team de France de football – qualified for the final round of the 2002 presidential election. In last year’s presidential election, her daughter, Marine Le Pen, won more than 10 million votes, the highest result never recorded by the National Front, which became the National Rally.
But the fact that during this World Cup Mbappé was hailed as a national hero of diversity is seen as a reflection of a changing and growing France. suburb talent, a gesture to bridge the gap between the capital and its hinterland. Sylvine Thomassin, the mayor of Bondy, welcomed the fact that the tournament brought “a good image of the suburb in general”.
At a youth club in Bondy, teenagers prepared red, white and blue banners and stored flags for the screening of the final in the town. “The World Cup has brought such a positive feeling here, it’s magic,” said 15-year-old Kamelia, who played women’s football at AS Bondy, the small local club where Mbappé trained when he was a child. “There is a real sense of togetherness, whole families will come together to watch the game.”
Ayoub, 16, another young local player, remembers Mbappé as a child. “He was always there doing extra training. He’s our mascot. He’s proof that, if you work hard enough, anything is possible.
In the city center, a large banner hung on the roof of the town hall said: “Thank you Kylian”.
There has been such an increase in leading French football players from Paris suburb over the past two decades that the region around the French capital is now considered to be perhaps the largest breeding ground for aspiring footballers in the world, ahead of São Paulo in Brazil. The reasons are many: excellent local clubs, a high concentration of young people and the large number of talent scouts who flock here. The style of some players is even said to reflect a street football childhood where many learn to play fast in small spaces.
Bondy, where Mbappé grew up, has a population of around 50,000, stretching on either side of a motorway linking Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport. It is part of the department of Seine-Saint-Denis which, with 1.6 million inhabitants, is the poorest territory in France, with the youngest population. It was in Seine-Saint-Denis that three weeks of riots in several French cities began in 2005, after two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who were returning from football, were electrocuted while hiding in an electrical substation after being chased by the police.
Unemployment and poverty in the estates north of Paris are still higher than elsewhere in France, and many young people remain marginalized and unemployed because of their address, the color of their skin or the immigrant origin of their parents. President Emmanuel Macron once described the discrimination and inequality here as a kind of “house arrest”.
But Mbappé and his family tell a different story of suburb – young talent, ambition and family support – that France was keen to embrace this summer. If the young star started singing the national anthem and dreaming of playing for France before the age of five, it is largely thanks to his parents. His father Wilfried, of Cameroonian origin, was a local footballer and a respected coach in Bondy. His mother, Fayza, of Algerian origin, was a professional handball player. They still advise their son, who has been praised for donating his World Cup match fees to charity and he said he would be lost without them.
“Wilfried Mbappé was a coach and youth worker when I was growing up, he always gave his all for the community; without him, I might not be where I am today,” said Hakim Ziane, teacher and educator. “It’s wonderful that the suburb is today celebrated rather than stigmatized. There are no barriers in this city. There is a lot of talent and we have to do what we can to make social mobility work.
Of the 23 players in the young French squad, more than half are of African or Arab descent, drawing comparisons with the 1998 squad. France’s place in the World Cup final is already being hailed as a sort of of unifying balm. Two sociologists called the finale a kind of “collective therapy” after years of terrorist attacks that fractured an already torn French society.
But in a French republic that is in theory supposed to be colorblind, issues of race and identity within the national team have not been easy over the past decade.
In 2010, the team’s mutiny at the World Cup in South Africa was privately blamed by some on black or Muslim players, including French convert to Islam Franck Ribéry. Speculation was that the team had fragmented due to a lack of “national identity”, which angered supporters of the suburbs. In 2011, French football was mired in crisis after claims officials tried to limit black and Arab players to youth training programs to make the team whiter. Novelist Olivier Guez, who flew with Macron to attend the semi-final in Russia, warned last week against weighing down the team with too much symbolism about “the nation”.
But in Bondy good humor is welcome. “Everyone is so proud and happy, it’s been incredible,” said Shaïma Outouia, 21, an educator and sports coach who knew Mbappé. “It’s great to show Bondy in a positive light, as a place that does everything to help its young and old. On TV, Kylian looks rightfully serious, but I know him as a fun, generous person who always makes people laugh.”