First Citizens, Then Professional Footballers
Mbappe and other French national players take a stance on the riots following the death of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in Nanterre last week Tuesday.
Jules Koundé took the lead. On Tuesday evening, as the first wave of protests swept through France's suburbs just a few hours after the news of Nahel's death broke, the FC Barcelona defender and French national team player spoke out. "A 17-year-old young man was shot at close range by a police officer because he refused to be controlled," Koundé wrote on Twitter. He also criticized the media's coverage. "As if this new police mistake wasn't enough, the constant news channels are making a huge spectacle out of it," he commented darkly.
Criticism of Media Coverage
He saw the media driven by "groups disconnected from reality." So-called 'journalists' - he put the professional title in quotation marks - asked questions "with the sole aim of distorting the truth, criminalizing the victim, and finding mitigating circumstances." Koundé, who moved from southern France to Spain four years ago, obviously echoed the sentiments of many compatriots who saw the death of Nahel, a Frenchman of Algerian and Moroccan descent, as further evidence of latent racism in the police and were outraged by the initial media coverage.
National team colleague Mike Maignan promptly retweeted Koundé's tweet. "Magic Mike," as he calls himself, is under contract with AC Milan and hails from the French overseas territory of Guiana. "A bullet in the head... It's always the same people for whom injustice leads to death," he wrote.
Kylian Mbappé: "I suffer from my France"
On Wednesday morning, exactly 24 hours after the fatal shot, Kylian Mbappé followed suit. The son of a Cameroonian footballer and a Franco-Algerian handball player, who, like the victim, grew up in a Paris suburb, first expressed his despair. "I suffer from my France," he wrote, followed by a sequence of blue, white, and three broken red hearts. The colors of the tricolor represented the country he represents, the country he scores goals for, the country he led to a World Cup final and helped win another World Cup final. The broken hearts spoke for themselves. Mbappé called the situation "unacceptable," which could mean many things. And he referred to Nahel, written as Naël in the original because that was assumed to be the name of the victim at the time, as "a little angel who left too soon."
Open letter from Real Madrid star Aurélien Tchouameni
Aurélien Tchouameni, who is two years younger than Mbappé and Koundé and therefore closer in age to Nahel, was much more analytical on Wednesday evening. "I would like to understand why young people have been dying in completely trivial police checks for years," wrote the son of a Cameroonian manager in the pharmaceutical industry and a mother employed in the education sector in an open letter on Twitter. Tchouameni welcomed the video of the fatal traffic stop, as it could not be covered up as another case. Like his national team colleague Koundé, he also criticized the media as biased and sources of hate.
The defensive midfielder from Real Madrid also reminded that "the vast majority of police officers carry out their mission while respecting fundamental rights and sometimes under very difficult conditions." And he emphasized the importance of restoring "the trust of citizens in the police, as any lack of justice raises doubts about the actions of law enforcement." Tchouameni demonstrates good sensibility with this statement as well. Because "Justice for Nahel" is the most common demand seen in the demonstrations and mourning processions of the past few days.
The footballers, all of whom have a migrant background, also faced backlash on Twitter, in the media, and across the depths of the internet. Tchouameni, for example, was accused of not speaking out when a teacher named Samuel Paty was beheaded by an Islamist-motivated perpetrator in 2020, or when it was revealed that an Algerian woman was arrested as the main culprit in the brutal torture murder of 12-year-old Lola in October last year. The accusations against him followed an openly racist pattern: When one of "your own" is murdered, you speak up, but when "your own" kills one of "ours," you remain silent, according to this logic.
Social Responsibility of Mbappé
One cannot even accuse Mbappé of this. After Paty's murder, he expressed solidarity with teachers. "Teachers are like our coaches. To learn and win, we always have to play together, listen to each other, exchange ideas, and help each other. In school and on the field: Let's be united," he called out.
It was almost statesmanlike. And the Minister of Education thanked him. Mbappé also reacted when black music producer Michel Zecler was brutally beaten by police officers in Paris just weeks later. During the pandemic, he advocated for vaccinations against the virus, showed himself getting vaccinated, and used his popularity to encourage others as well.
Special Relationship: Mbappé - President Macron
All of this made the footballer highly attractive to politicians. France's President Emmanuel Macron sought his proximity - the more his approval ratings declined, the more intense it became. Macron even promised to work towards keeping France's best footballer at Paris Saint-Germain, the financially backed major club in the French capital. Even now, French media assumes that the influence of the presidential apparatus transformed the individual outrage and despair of the national players into a carefully calculated public statement.
Statement of the National Football Team
A statement from the French national team appeared prematurely - and was quickly withdrawn - on the Instagram account of Benjamin Pavard, who is still under contract with Bayern Munich. On Friday evening, it was officially disseminated by captain Mbappé. In it, the national team expressed its shock at the "brutal murder." They understood the anger on the streets but also cautioned against violence and self-destruction, urging instead for dialogue and rebuilding. It reads like a carefully coordinated statement in all directions. However, it is remarkable because an entire team speaks out, a community of athletes who seemingly fear that the country and the people they represent on the football field are falling into a dynamic of self-destruction.
Jules Koundé, the first of the national players to publicly comment on the murder in Nanterre, summed up this new attitude best: "We should remember that we are human beings and citizens long before we are footballers, and that we have the right to express ourselves." The footballers make themselves vulnerable. They step out of the comfort zone that sports stars have long enjoyed, which also obliged them not to comment on political issues. However, the professionals also bring to life what they sing before every international game when they sing the national anthem. The "Marseillaise" is about justice, freedom, and unity. Now, they are not just accompanied by an orchestra for ball games, but they are also writing their own lyrics with a distinct voice.