‘If we win, I’m German. If we lose, I’m not’: why Ozil’s dilemma is every immigrant’s dilemma

People gather under a cardboard bearing a photo of German national team football player Mesut Ozil (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) reading " Mesut Ozil street" on July 24, 2018 during a street name ceremony in Zonguldak's Devrek district.  Turkey OUT
 / AFP / Demiroren News Agency / -

In France, one immigrant is given citizenship for rescuing a toddler, while others feel the chill of the country's harsh asylum laws, writes Charlie Mitchell

“I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

So said Mesut Ozil, one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, as he retired prematurely from international football.

When Ozil posed with Turkey’s swaggering strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan in London in May, outraged fans questioned his loyalty to Germany and its values. But hostility towards the dual nationality footballer intensified when champions Germany crashed out of the World Cup after a string of wretched performances.

A torrent of online abuse spilled into a Russian stadium, where Ozil was reportedly racially abused by a fan after a match against Sweden.

It sparked a national debate in Germany about the treatment of dual nationality citizens. And it revealed a rot within European societies, where promises of equality are belied by the facts on the ground.

The dichotomy is even more severe in France, despite “colour blindness” being enshrined in law to prevent that inequality. And it was in France – whose players this month defeated a rugged Croatian side to lift the 2018 World Cup – where the race debate Ozil sparked was at its loudest.

As the team bus waded through packed Parisian streets, US evening show host Trevor Noah attracted the ire of the French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud.

“Africa won the World Cup,” said Mr Noah, referring to the fact that 19 of France’s 23-man squad were born to immigrant parents or migrated at a young age, mostly from France’s former colonial territories.

“Unlike the US, France does not refer to its citizens based on race, religion or origin,” wrote Mr Araud. “To us there is no hyphenated identity.”

His response illustrated a deep paradox within French society – one in which “absolute equality” is legally enforced, but where racism is institutionalised and endemic. Where all are solely “French”, regardless of religion, creed or background, but where the ultra-right Front National is a credible political force.

A recent poll by the newspaper Le Monde found that two-thirds of French people think the country has welcomed too many migrants. And 60 per cent perceive Islam to be a threat to the country's values.

The French state is unique in prohibiting any reference to national, ethnic, religious or racial background, in pursuit of the ideals of the French Revolution. As a result, the collection of data pertaining to racial origins or religion is explicitly banned. Identifiers such as French-Cameroonian and French-Algerian do not exist.

And yet realities on the ground belie that well-meaning if outdated approach. In modern France, the paradox of legal equality and ubiquitous discrimination is a source of great cynicism.

One result – banning any public display of religious affiliation – has led to a string of unpleasant episodes, including in August 2016, when armed police forced a Muslim woman to remove her headscarf and tunic on a beach in Nice.

Meanwhile, the dearth of data on discrimination renders Muslims voiceless in cases of discrimination, particularly regarding employment.

A 2015 study by the Montaigne Institute found that a practising French Muslim is four times less likely to be invited for an interview than a practising Catholic. Companies cannot ask for religion on job applications, but name and postcode discrimination are prevalent. And French politicians have repeatedly rejected any form of affirmative action based on race or religion.

By some estimates, French Muslims face even more discrimination than African Americans, who encounter similar difficulties in finding jobs or renting apartments.

In 1998, Zinedine Zidane, born to Algerian parents, led another diverse French team to World Cup glory. While then president Jacques Chirac lauded the multi-racial squad, Front National founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose daughter now leads the party, branded them “unworthy”.

Two decades on, the core problem has grown, primarily in the crowded and self-contained immigrant suburbs, or banlieues, which surround French cities. In the banlieues, legal equality is merely an illusion.

On October 27, 2005, police scrambled to one such Paris suburb, Clichy-sous-Bois, to investigate a construction site break-in. Eluding probable interrogation, two teenagers hid in a power substation and died by electrocution.

It was a spark, igniting the banlieues, where unemployment is high and police harassment common. France’s worst riots in 40 years reached Marseille, Rennes, Bordeaux, Lyon and Toulouse, leaving three dead. Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, polemically declared a “guerrilla war” and announced a state of emergency, during which 3,000 people were arrested.

The riots were rooted in ethnic tensions, chronic deprivation, police violence and years of discrimination. A ruinous decision in 2002 saw Mr Sarkozy scrap neighbourhood policing; as a result officers only entered the banlieues to make arrests, making law enforcement synonymous with repression.

It reflected an intrinsic, generational problem. In the boom years from the end of the Second World War to the early 1970s, millions of immigrants arrived in France, mostly from French colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia. The parallels with the UK’s Windrush generation, whose descendants have also received dreadful treatment recently, are plain.

It was transactional. After years of imperialism, that first wave of migrants were eager to pursue greater prosperity on European shores.

But their grandchildren now living in the impoverished banlieues, routinely denied employment and educational opportunities, feel differently. Many are prevented by their surroundings from really feeling French.

Today, for these demonised youngsters on the outskirts, football is one of the few routes to success, both monetary and professional. And with that success comes the integration they have for years been denied. But as with Ozil, it is entirely situational.

“If I score I’m French,” said forward Karim Benzema before the 2014 World Cup. “If I don’t, I’m Arab.”

It strikes at a deeper point, the notion of the “good immigrant”. As xenophobia grips European societies, the binary widens. Those who contribute are regarded as citizens – those who do not are immigrants.

Take Mamoudou Gassama, an illegal Malian immigrant who received international acclaim and French citizenship from president Emmanuel Macron after he scaled a Parisian apartment block to rescue a dangling toddler in June.

Compare him with all those victimised by France’s harsh new asylum laws, introduced in February, which doubled detention periods to 90 days and made illegal border crossing punishable by a year in jail.

Delivering the annual Mandela speech this month, former US President Barack Obama outlined the benefits of diversity. It is a battle that should have already been won.

Far from it. The leaders of Hungary, Italy and the US have ridden to electoral success on waves of xenophobia. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s pugnacious premier, has warned of “Muslim invaders”.

And on July 19, Israel’s Knesset passed a pernicious nation state bill, which reserves the right to self-determination to Jews alone.

This type of policy, which sidelines all but one religion or ethnicity, might be implemented elsewhere.

While the French experience is more subtle, for some citizens it is equally destructive.

Pressure is high in football, where winners are deified and losers shunned. But the abuse levelled at dual nationality players when national teams are defeated reveals a form of conditional racism.

Mesut Ozil is just the latest and most visible example of a trend that has existed for decades in Britain, France, Germany and elswhere.

He deserves great credit for his courage in highlighting an issue that extends far beyond football – to integration, colonisation and the very fabric of European society.

Charlie Mitchell is a leader writer for The National