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Euro 2024: Did Kylian Mbappe slow France's National Rally?

July 9, 2024

While the French national team ekes out progress on the pitch, several players have also engaged with their country's election. Kylian Mbappe is one of those who warned against "extremes." So, did it make a difference?

Kylian Mbappe points to the French logo on his face mask
Kylian Mbappe is among the French national football players to have commented on the recent French electionsImage: Koen van Weel/ANP/picture alliance

Sunday saw scenes of celebration among French footballers. Ousmane Dembele posted a picture of himself beaming, Marcus Thuram wrote a congratulatory message, and Ibrahima Konate opted for a string of emojis ending with clapping hands.

But this was not about Euro 2024, it was because the far-right National Rally (RN) surprisingly fell to third place in the second round of the French legislative election.

In the days leading up to Sunday's vote, a handful of France's Euros squad, including Kylian Mbappe, engaged publicly with questions about RN.

"More than ever, we have to go and vote, it is really urgent, we cannot leave our country in the hands of these people," Mbappe, whose family originally come from Algeria and Cameroon, said in a press conference shortly before the vote. 

Jules Kounde was even stronger in his message: "I think it will be important to block the far right and the National Rally," he said after the last-16 win over Belgium. "They will not lead our country to more liberty and unity. That is my position."

After the first round of voting, RN were expected to be in a much stronger position than they are now, as France grapples with how the country will be run, with no group possessing an absolute majority. The timing of the election, with France in a major tournament, has meant the players' voices have been heard more loudly than might otherwise have been the case. But did they actually make a difference?

'We are under threat'

"It's very difficult to say. The defeat of the National Rally has multifactorial reasons, and footballer mobilization was one of them," Pascal Boniface, the founding director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs and a member of the National Ethical Commission at the French Football Federation, told DW.

"Perhaps it was not the primary one, but it has created an atmosphere where this time we are under threat. We have to do something. We could not stay at home smoking cigarettes and waiting for something else. So I think it has created, above all among the young population, a strong feeling that we need to do something. We could not stay silent or immobile."

'President Macron is doing France a lot of harm'

The strongest voices in the national team on this election have been from France's Black players. And although several spoke out, midfielder Adrien Rabiot confirmed these were individual decisions.

"We haven't spoken about this collectively all together, but I think that a lot of people felt relief after the results yesterday," he said on Monday. 

"I've always said that sports and politics don't always go well together."

Racism feels personal to players

Boniface said that, for players like Mbappe, Kounde, Thuram, Dembele and center-back Dayot Upamecano, this was more about a personal experience of racism than politics. Their voices, he added, had a credibility that political commentators didn't tend to have.

This runs contrary to what RN leader Marine le Pen has said about the French captain. "Mbappe doesn’t represent French people with an immigration background, because there are far more of them living on the minimum wage, who can’t afford housing and can’t afford heating, than people like Mr. Mbappe," she told CNN.

However, the point, Boniface said, is that Mbappe has been in their shoes.

"Most of them will have been a victim of discrimination when they were young, victims of racism. So their mobilization, it's not for political reform, it's against racism, and the National Rally appears [to them] as a racist party," he said. "That's why they were highly mobilized against them. It's not for fiscal reasons, or for retirement reform or to upgrade the minimum wage. It's just because, in their minds, this party is racist. And they want to fight racism."

It wasn't just footballers who warned French voters against RN, either. Some 200 athletes signing an open letter published before the first round of voting. Among them were basketball star Victor Wembanyama, former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli and rugby great Serge Betsen.

"We're calling on everyone with a passion for sport to take action against the rise of the far right," it read.

Footballers drive youth vote

Mbappe's words on the eve of the tournament raised some eyebrows in French society when he appeared to suggest there were dangers on both sides of the political spectrum, using the phrase, "The extremes are at the gates of power." But he also appealed directly to young people. "I want to talk to the whole of the French people, but also the youth," he said. "We are a generation that can make a difference."

France's national football team lines up for a photo before a match
The French football team consists of players whose heritage lies in many different placesImage: Kai Pfaffenbach/REUTERS

This, Boniface said, is where the French team made a significant impact.

"These players could reach young people who usually are not concerned by politics," he said. "Most of them have millions who follow them on X, on Instagram, on Tiktok, and they have an impact on those who usually don't want to vote. You often have a lot of abstentions among the youngsters."

"The football team is one of the few things in France which unites the country. Once the competition has begun, everybody is for the team. And so there is no left or right. There is no 'Are you Muslim? Are you Jewish or are you Christian?' Of course, it's not the sole factor, but even on the fine margins, it has helped prevent the National Rally from coming to power."

As important as a tournament feels when it's happening, perhaps this French squad has had an even broader impact on their society.

Ali Farhat contributed to this article.

Edited by: Charles Penfold

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