Mathieu Kassovitz’s film La Haine (Hatred), a tragicomic portrait of marginalised young men from the Parisian ghettos, includes a scene in which one character asks: “You got any more bullshit sayings?” Another replies: “Liberté, égailité, fraternité.”
The French national motto, proclaiming freedom, equality, and fraternity for all, has come to serve as a bad joke, a symbol of the state’s failure to lift up the disadvantaged and the marginalised. For a country with a proud history of trade-unionism, this tradition too may be about to suffer the same fate: sullied, this time, at the hands of sport.
The Union of Professional Football Clubs (UCPF) has ditched plans to stage a day of strikes in protest against the introduction of a 75% tax on income, the controversial new measure which President François Hollande has made one of his fundamental battlegrounds during a rocky first term as chef d’état. The leading lights of French club football – although to call them ‘leading lights’ perhaps does an injustice to lights – have backed down over the strikes, initially planned for 30th November, in the face of a tide of criticism. Their argument: that football clubs would be disproportionately affected by this new measure because many of their employees earn in excess of the ¤1 million per annum which would see them qualify for it. In other words, French footballers are unhappy because they are too rich. Needless to say, they received little sympathy.
“The Union of Professional Football Clubs (UCPF) has ditched plans to stage a day of strikes in protest against the introduction of a 75% tax on income, the controversial new measure which President François Hollande has made one of his fundamental battlegrounds during a rocky first term as chef d’état.”
This comes at a time when the French public’s relationship with football is, at best, strained. It must be seen in the context of years of violent confrontations between fans of the country’s two biggest club sides, Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille. In fact, when they didn’t have any Marseille fans to fight, PSG ultras would resort to fighting between themselves, à la Millwall, with rival factions squaring off against one another, sometimes with fatal consequences. Following the 2011 takeover of PSG by the Qataris (commonly known as ‘doing a Man City’), many hoped that French football would undergo something of a renaissance. And when the Parisians did eventually win the Ligue 1 title in May of this year, they celebrated in the traditional Parisian way: they rioted. Add to that the love/hate relationship with the national team – the ridiculous attempted coup led by Patrice Evra et al. during Les Bleus’ miserable campaign in South Africa in 2010 still lingers in French consciousness – and the French public was never going to embrace a strike with open arms. PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic earns a reported ¤14million per annum. Edinson Cavani, his strike-partner, ¤10million. In such a competitive market as that of European football, such sums are not uncommon – Cristiano Ronaldo earns ¤21million, Lionel Messi ¤16million – and are viewed as necessary to attract top talent to the French capital. This has not stopped Ibrahimovic’s salary being branded ‘disgusting’ and ‘indecent’ by former budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac (who, amusingly, later resigned after becoming himself the focus of a tax fraud scandal, having squirrelled away large sums in Swiss bank accounts).
PSG’s arrival as the new kid on the hyper-rich block instantly made them an obvious political target, a ready-made scape-goat for the Hollande administration. Despite initial mutterings of a possible exception to the 75% tax for French football clubs – a rumour, it should be said, that seemed to originate mainly from the clubs themselves – this was eventually rubbished in an attempt to reinforce the government’s credibility. The 75% tax has become France’s ‘Obamacare’ and as invincible as PSG’s oligarch backers might feel within the confines of the football bubble, taking on France’s political elite would soon expose its limitations.
The strike was originally conceived as a way for the socioeconomically disadvantaged to make their voices heard. For it to be used by millionaires as a way to protest against the redistribution of wealth makes a mockery of the very concept. Its bastardisation by French football is as laughable as the once-great principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité.