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Decoding Kylian Mbappe's snub of French President Macron at FIFA World Cup final

Thrice during the 2022 FIFA World Cup presentation ceremony, Kylian Mbappe seemed desperate to escape France's President Emmanuel Macron. Here's some background that might explain his reluctance to be friends:

Decoding Kylian Mbappes snub of French President Macron at FIFA World Cup final

France's Kylian Mbappe and Didier Deschamps with President Emmanuel Macron after the FIFA World Cup final (EPA)


Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 19 Dec 2022 2:12 AM GMT

Kylian Mbappe's hat-trick, the first in a FIFA World Cup final in 56 years, went in vain as Argentina beat France on penalties on Sunday night.

But his biggest goal might have been scored after the match - in refusing to make eye contact with French President Emmanuel Macron. Not once, not twice, but thrice in the course of the hour-long presentation ceremony, Macron came off as desperately trying and failing to project Mbappe to the world as his best friend.

Some may argue that Mbappe was not warm towards Macron because he was feeling low just after the defeat. But Mbappe was seen acknowledging Argentine goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez's words of consolation at the exact moment he chose to ignore his President. And what is more, it was at that exact moment that Macron did something that could be seen to be inappropriate.

Moments before Mbappe seemed to want to move away from the tug at his elbow by Macron, the President showed a side of him of which he has often been accused - arrogance and unawareness.

African-American hair has been a site of a long battle through history and there continues to be a rhetoric around how it can be seen as a political act to touch it. "Touching hair is a micro-aggression, the racist prelude to 'well I have one black friend'," says Parents for Diversity. Safe to say Macron tousling Mbappe's hair to console him might not have been the wonderful photo opportunity the President might have imagined.

And having his hair touched seems to be something Mbappe generally has a problem with.

Mbappe seemed glad to be able to walk away, but even French coach Didier Deschamps kept his back turned as Macron moved over to him after failing to woo Mbappe.

A little later, Mbappe again seemed visibly uncomfortable with Macron's attentions, as he climbed the stage to receive the Golden Boot award. Conmebol President Claudio Tapia of Argentina, standing beside Macron, also added to the comical nature of the scene by looking down at his watch as Mbappe looked desperate to escape Macron for the second time in one night.

"Kylian Mbappe is a great player but he's young and I reminded him of that. I told him he's only 24 and he was the World Cup top scorer. He's won a World Cup before, he's been to another final," Macron told RMC Sport later.

Decoding the snub

That Macron would try to score a political point at the World Cup final had actually been anticipated.

"Emmanuel Macron could put himself at the centre of a win and that would spoil the party. There's a lot of tension right now, over salaries, strikes, protecting pensions and social rights," a French fan told The Guardian last week. This fan said that Macron could try to use the mood of festivity to push his plans to roll back the pension age in France.

As recently as in October, thousands of people across France came to the streets in a nation-wide strike against the rise in the cost of living, termed as Macron's 'stiffest challenge' since his re-election.

Macron was snubbed by Karim Benzema as well last week. The striker reportedly rejected the President's offer to him to join his private delegation for the final. 'Not interested', he said in an Instagram post shortly after.

By all accounts, Macron is not the most popular man at this moment - either in France or in the French dressing room.

Mbappe and Macron's personal history

But with Kylian Mbappe, the President also has some history.

Mbappe burst onto the scene in 2017, making his first appearance for France a few weeks before Macron was elected President. The two are neighbours, the PSG stadium being only four miles from the Élysée Palace. Macron sees Mbappe as the ideal role model for 21st century France, has often used him for PR and has generally tried to tie his own fortunes with that of the footballer.

As for Mbappe, for whom being closer to Macron made much more sense than the anti-immigration far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, he has been beginning to express his discomfort with this equation this year.

It was soon after Macron's re-election earlier this year that Mbappe stayed on at Paris Saint Germain even though it seemed - for a while - that a move to Real Madrid was what he wanted.

"We had several calls. In December, January, February, March... Macron called me and said, 'I know you want to leave, but I want you to know that you are important for France and I would not like you to leave'," Mbappe told Sports Illustrated on the rather insistent role the President had to play in his non-transfer to Madrid.

Kylian Mbappe and Emiliano Martinez share words after the FIFA World Cup final; President Macron tries to get a word in. (EPA)

Then in April, Mbappe was again in the news - this time for not endorsing Macron's re-election. Fifty prominent figures from the world of French sport put their names to a declaration calling for people to vote for the incumbent President. Mbappe was not among them.

A political act

But Mbappe's snub might have been more than personal - it might have been political.

At the World Cup, players embody their nations, or perhaps their imagined nations - for example, a version of France where there is no ambiguity about racial identity.

Players' acts take on symbolic meaning because they represent specific sections of society - for example, the suburbs of Seine-Saint-Denis that Mbappe hails from, where one third of the population are below the poverty line and the region of France where the most crimes per capita are committed, according to Der Spiegel.

Here, neither Macron nor Le Pen are popular. In the first round of the Presidential election this year, 49 per cent of the electorate cast their ballot for the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon instead.

The political discontent within France is not confined to Mbappe's area either. In the second round of April's Presidential elections, in what can only be seen as a sign of disillusionment with the available political candidates, Mbappe received ten ballots in the village of Doubs in central France.

Mbappe might want to hold off on his political career till he wins a few more Golden Boots, but it would be clear to him that being friends with Macron is not going to make him popular in his neighbourhood.

Race politics

Macron's short-term aim by putting himself in the spotlight at the World Cup final might well have been to roll back France's pension age, but the debate surrounding the multicultural identity of the French team makes Presidential support of the team a political act in itself.

In 1996, right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen, attacked the French team as being made up of 'foreigners' and 'fake Frenchmen'. That is not a mistake his daughter's party makes these days.

France's victory at the 1998 FIFA World Cup led to a sense of utopia about a new, inclusive, post-racial France. As an Algerian immigrant's son Zinedine Zidane threaded the ball through for native French Emmanuel Petit to seal the title, there was a hope that a multicultural football team could cure France of racial inequality.

Whether that had been a naive supposition or not, such naiveté does not exist any more - neither in life, nor in football.

The Algerian-origin Benzema said in 2011: "When I score, I'm French, when I don't, or when there's a problem, I'm Arab."

Son of Cameroonian and Algerian immigrants himself, Mbappe felt so disillusioned with his country at one point that he considered not playing international football.

"I cannot play for people who think I'm a monkey. I'm not gonna play," he had told SI.

France's football team continues to draw heavily on working-class settlements - where immigrant families stay - for its best players, especially since the era of coach Deschamps. The last coach, Raymond Domenech, had allegedly participated in discussions with the French federation on putting a cap on the number of non-French-origin players in the squad. It was this same Domenech who got into a furious altercation with the Caribbean-origin Nicholas Anelka during the 2010 World Cup.

But the players themselves these days have a peculiar role in French society - representatives of the 'new France', at a cold war with the whites-dominated political system across party lines.

Philosopher and public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut had said in the 2000s: "People say that everyone admires the French team, because it's black-white-Arab. Actually, these days the team is black-black-black, which makes it the laughing stock of Europe." Many of these French footballers have been criticised within France for not singing La Marseillaise, the national anthem that includes references to 'impure blood' watering the country's fields.

Macron had said a few days ago that sports should not be politicised. With Mbappe's famous shrug of the shoulders that usually leave defenders tumbling, he perhaps asked Macron at the presentation ceremony of the World Cup final to take his own advice more to heart.

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