Sport the rescue of city policy?

In January 2021, the mayors who are members of the Interministerial Committee for Cities proposed to spend an envelope of 1% of the total budget of the Olympic and Paralympic Games to finance projects for priority neighborhoods of urban policy (QPV).

Should the 2024 Olympics in Paris, a major event for the world’s sporting elite, also provide an answer to the social problems facing underprivileged working-class neighborhoods? This is the wish of many players in French sport as well as the local authorities.

As a place of intermingling and a vector of Republican equality, would suburban amateur sports be neglected? This problem had already been pointed out in the Borloo Report on French Suburbs (2018), but also by previous governments. Of the 19 recommendations made by Jean-Louis Borloo, sport came in sixth with proposals for training and recruiting integration coaches through sport.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe also stated in April 2018:

“There are 500,000 unemployed youth in the neighborhoods and we have no right to let them out. Sport is one of the keys to living together”.

The 2019 inter-ministerial circular “Sports Cities Inclusion” also stipulates that every city contract must contain a section “Sports Action for Social and Territorial Inclusion”. Sporting activities are presented as “revealing talents” that can be mobilized for access to training and employment, but also as “bearers of civic values”. More than any other activity, therefore, sport could mobilize a young audience in a dynamic of integration and/or citizenship.

What explains the recurring appeal to sports in the suburbs? Which sports model is transferred there?

The myth of inclusive sports

Based on a myth expressed in the sporting ideology promoted by the founders of modern sport, the consensus on the social functions of a naturally integrating and socializing sport is widely shared today.

Firstly, because sport shows many figures of social success, both popular and with an immigrant background.

Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Jules Koude taken for the Ligue 1 Cup (UEFA) before the France-Denmark match at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis on June 3, 2022.
Frank Fife/AFP

Thus, according to a widely held belief in our democratic societies, the sole practice of sports outside the stadiums could trigger civil and ethical behavior. Sport would then be the carrier of values ​​that can pacify neighbourhoods, create coexistence and form a springboard to employment. However, the transfer of sports skills to other social spaces (work, school, etc.) is not mechanical in any way.

Use of changing values ​​and images

Compliance with sports rules or competition instructions does not necessarily imply compliance with social rules, as witnessed in the many cases in which players from the sports world are involved: think of the conviction of Karim Benzema in the so-called sex tape or even sexual abuse in high-level skating.

Born with modern sport, this belief is today passed on by a circle of believers much wider than just athletes: elected politicians, business leaders, recruiters, consultants, educators recognize the idea that sport is a springboard for professional integration.

However, the use, values ​​and image of sport have changed since the birth of modern sport. Today, in working-class neighborhoods, sport is more of a showcase for social and economic success (via the competitive sport model) than a vector of true citizenship.

And the individualism and identity claims that undermine the social body do not spare the sports world. We can cite Djokovic’s refusal to comply with the Covid-19 vaccination rule while claiming the right to participate in the Australian Open. The demand for hijab women to wear the Islamic veil to play on a football field, the demand for specific meals from sports federations or the requirements for pool hours reserved for women illustrate the impact in sport of the recent rise of communitization of our societies.



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Allowing the expression of bourgeois values

The history of sport explains its transformations, but also the evolution of its political and social use. From 1830 the English clergyman Thomas Arnold taught sport at the College of Rugby because it was to express civic values ​​such as fair game (respect for the opponent, the rules, the referee’s decisions and the spirit of the game) and the self-government(the ability to control yourself in the game, not to “get caught up in the game”).

During the XXe century, when it became more democratic, competitive sport together labeled an ideal (ethics or sportsmanship) and a physical practice of competition governed by common rules. For institutions (sports or education), “sports” is not just about physical exertion in a sporting setting, but above all about acquiring morality and, more recently, gaining access to some form of citizenship.

Public school educators (for the English social elite) of the mid-19th centurye century to the sports leaders of the 1980s, through the Gaullists of Youth and Sport and the Communist militants of the Sports Federation and Gymnastics of Labor in the 1960s, all contributed to promoting and consolidating the vision of an intrinsically virtuous and educational competition of sports. Also for General De Gaulle, “sport is an exceptional method of education” (De Gaulle, 1934, p. 150).

Rise of spectator sport

From the 1980s, sport emerged from the narrow circle of strict competition and acquired the status of an integration tool for the suburbs in the context of the rise of spectator sport linked to the privatization of television. Football is becoming the sport most watched by young men from working-class neighborhoods and offers them an example of excellence. In France, Bernard Tapie (President of Olympique de Marseille from 1986 to 1993) symbolized the rise of the sports business and a new meritocracy through sport.

Under the combined effect of transformations in the sports world (democratization, professionalization, media attention, commodification) and new dynamics (market liberalization, state withdrawal and decentralization, increasing inequality, economic crisis, unemployment, first urban riots, political changes ), sport is increasingly invoked in the fight against new social exclusions as it offers a showcase of success in the most popular sports (football, basketball, athletics, boxing).

INA Archives, Minguettes District, September 22, 1981.

Sport then becomes ‘social’ and the systems for young people in residential areas are gradually qualified as ‘sociosport’. When the left came to power, the left created a Ministry of Leisure integrating Youth and Sports, while in the summer of 1981 the first urban riots broke out in the Minguettes district of Lyon, where the first effects of family reunification were recorded. a background of rising unemployment and the rise of the Front National.

“pacify” the suburbs

From 1990 (date of the establishment of a state ministry in charge of urban policy), the ministries of City and Sports worked together to revitalize and ‘pacify’ the suburbs. Under the Ministers of the City, Michel Delebarre and then Bernard Tapie, local sports facilities and neighborhood sports activities are gradually emerging, led by police officers and educators.

The desire to make sport a tool for social development has subsequently been widely shared by successive governments since 1991. Taking advantage of the momentum created by the victory of the French team “Black Blanc Beur” in 1998, numerous of measures taken by the public authorities (state and local authorities) and sports federations according to this logic that goes beyond the boundaries of political preferences without an objective and longitudinal evaluation of the effects of this policy on the social integration and/or professionalism of the target groups executed .

1998 World Cup final and victory for France against Brazil for the first time in its history (3-0): This event gave impetus to sport as a matter of popular “pacification”.
Omar Torres/AFP

In addition, these programs, which are overseen by the “big brothers”, have long been a priority among boys and young adults. In addition, the political will to integrate young adolescents primarily through sport in order to avoid the most visible rebellion has, paradoxically, led to the exclusion of girls and young women and a masculinization of public space through urban sports, free or framed. And it is clear that after the end of compulsory education, many young girls from the working classes stop all physical activity.

Only from the 2000s, in the context of a more assertive policy in favor of equality, did public sports activity in the suburbs become more feminised. But when gender equality is proclaimed, the public sports fields and the professional integration schemes through sports in the QPVs are still mainly intended for boys and young men. On the contrary, local elected officials and the state must commit to making sport, along with school, one of the privileged places for diversity and the fight against sexist stereotypes that limit girls to practices and outfits that are “appropriate” to their gender.