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Karim Benzema, a French obsession

The French Minister of the Interior’s accusations against the former Madrid champion for his alleged Islamist sympathies are the umpteenth installment in the stormy relationship with a part of his country and its authorities

Karim Benzema playing for France in 2021.
Karim Benzema playing for France in 2021.Aurelien Meunier (Getty Images)

Karim Benzema has often been called the mal-aimé, the “unloved one” of French soccer. After Zinedine Zidane and until the emergence of Kylian Mbappé, he was the greatest French soccer player of his time, but he has never become a universally accepted idol like the other two. It was as if he didn’t quite fit. When the issue was not about his reserved personality, it was because he did not sing La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) at international matches. When it was not because he said that Algeria (where his parents are from) was his country, his “heart,” it was because of more serious matters such as a blackmail case involving a sex video of Mathieu Valbuena, a fellow player on the national team. Neither he nor his fellow citizens bonded with each other. It is as if the player were a mirror of some national neuroses.

The most recent episode in this litany of disagreements occurred a few days ago. The French Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, blurted out during a television interview with CNews, a channel close to the extreme right: “Karim Benzema has a notorious link with the Muslim Brotherhood, as we all know.” The Muslim Brotherhood is a movement that was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Bana, that gave rise to groups such as the Palestinian Hamas that emerged decades ago in the Middle East. However, in France the Brotherhood is not considered a terrorist organization, although its critics say it harbors a desire to Islamize Western societies. Darmanin, the standard-bearer of the French government’s right wing, did not provide any evidence for such an accusation, which Benzema categorically denies. It doesn’t matter. In a few days the minister’s words about the former Real Madrid player spread through social media to Spain, and from there back to France, where they became a political issue. The minister’s office refused to make any further comment on the issue when contacted by EL PAÍS this week.

The new “Benzema case” — or should we say “Darmanin case?” — is “too easy a soap opera,” Vincent Duluc, the veteran journalist from L’Équipe says. He is referring to the fact that Benzema is an easy target for this type of controversy. And he lists incidents and accusations — almost always related to his ethnic origin and his religion, his level of attachment to France, even his appearance — that have marked the player’s career: Ballon d’Or and five-time winner of the Champions League with Real Madrid. The latest controversy stems from a message on the social network X (formerly Twitter) on October 15. “All our prayers go to the inhabitants of Gaza,” wrote Benzema, “victims once again of these unjust bombings that spare neither women nor children.”

Darmanin regretted that, since Benzema has more than 20 million followers on X (formerly Twitter) and an implied social responsibility, he did not condemn the Hamas attacks on October 7 or the murder of a high school teacher in Arras, in northern France on October 13. A senator from Les Republicains party (center-right party) in France, said that, if a link to the Muslim Brotherhood is confirmed, the soccer player should lose his French nationality and the Ballon d’Or. The ultra Éric Zemmour, presidential candidate in 2022, directly linked Benzema to the murder of the teacher in Arras. The athlete’s lawyer, Hugues Vigier, has announced that he will sue the minister for spreading false information and making public insults, and Zemmour for defamation.

What is it about Benzema that gets people excited like this? A few days ago in Le Parisien, the sociologist Stéphane Beaud, author of the essay Horrible, rich, and evil: another look at the bleus, gave several explanations for the “fixation” France has with the sportsman. One is his way of living his faith. When he arrived in Saudi Arabia this summer to play at Al-Ittihad, he declared: “[In Mecca] you are in ‘the real thing,’ you feel good, pure, it is exceptional. I wish all Muslims to go one day, that is where the truth is.” Beaud interprets that Benzema is a “born again Muslim,” like the so-called “born again Christians” who rediscover religious fervor as adults. Does this make him a “Muslim brother”? Not necessarily. In Saudi Arabia, furthermore, the organization is banned.

In an argument accessed by Le Figaro, Darmanin’s entourage states: “For years, we have noticed a drift in Karim Benzema’s positions towards the hard, rigorous Islam, typical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, which consists of spreading Islamic norms in different social spaces, especially in sports.” The minister’s advisors recall the sympathy he expressed on social media towards a Russian martial arts fighter accused of inciting hatred after the publication of the Muhammad cartoons. A recently published book, Quand l’Islamisme pénètre le sport (When Islamism infiltrates sport) by former gendarme and sociologist Médéric Chapitaux, abounds in the idea that radical Islam is increasingly influential in martial arts and soccer. Chapitaux cites studies according to which practices such as showering in underwear, praying in the locker room or requesting halal food are becoming more common.

The sociologist Beaud puts forward another reason for the French “fixation” with Benzema: his reluctance to break with the environment where he grew up, the environment of the banlieue, the impoverished suburbs with a population largely of North African origin. Loyalty to childhood friends, some of whom ended up falling into crime, has probably been paid dearly. “It is true that he prefers the company of his old buddies to that of the jet-set,” writes his former lawyer, Alain Jacubowicz, in the book Soit je gagne, soit j’apprends (Either I win, or I learn). “I always thought that he felt guilty about his success compared to his neighborhood friends, because things could have gone badly for him too. Maybe that’s why he likes to project a ‘bad boy’ image. One of his loved ones confessed to me one day with a big smile that, for his birthday, he would have liked to have been able to give him a few days in prison.” As if in this way he could fulfill his dream of truly having bad boy credentials.

The other character in this story also has North African origins and grew up in a working class family. In his own way, he is the bad boy of President Emmanuel Macron’s government. Gérald Darmanin has unapologetically displayed his ambition to replace Macron. The accusation against Benzema, according to Duluc, “is a political calculation that is not based on much, or anything at all.” He is not the first politician to have dealings with him. In the midst of the Valbuena blackmail scandal, others thought that it was not appropriate for Benzema to play on the national team while under indictment. He did not play in either the 2018 World Cup, which France won, or the 2022 World Cup, in which the team was a finalist. He once complained: “When I score, I’m French; When don’t, I am Arab.” He is not a prophet in his homeland, nor a friendly idol like Zidane and Mbappé, but he has something that the other two elite athletes lack. He reflects the realities and obsessions of this society, from racism to fear of Islamization. Karim Benzema perhaps unintentionally explains a lot about today’s France.

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