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Lilian Thuram on tackling racism, politics, slavery and the World Cup

the global conversation

Lilian Thuram on tackling racism, politics, slavery and the World Cup


Lilian Thuram is one of the best footballers of his generation. He led France to World Cup victory in 1998, and again two years later in the European Cup. And now his sights are fixed on a target which is just as challenging.

Lilian Thuram biography

  • Born in Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe, Lilian Thuram is a former French international football player. He played defence, either in the centre or on the right and held the record for selections for the French team
  • Lilian Thuram led the French team to victory at the 1998 World Cup scoring two goals against Croatia. Having become world champions, two years later Thuram’s French team went on to win the European Cup. Lilian Thuram also played in the World Cup in 2006 when France lost out to Italy in the final
  • Lilian Thuram began his professional career at Monaco before going to Italy (Parma and the Juventus, Turin), and ended up at Barcelona. A hereditary heart defect was detected by doctors in 2008 and he decided to hang up his football boots for good. Since then he founded the Fondation Lilian Thuram – Éducation Contre le Racisme (The Lilian Thuram Foundation – Education Against Racism). He has also written “Mes Etoiles Noires” (My Black Stars) and has just published a comic book “Notre Histoire” (Our History), with Jean-Christophe Camus and Sam Garcia

In this edition of The Global Conversation, Isabelle Kumar of euronews, spoke with the world champion about his efforts to tackle racism and put questions to him from euronews viewers.

Isabelle Kumar: “The World Cup victory in 1998 was, of course, a sporting victory but also a social one, your rainbow team was recognised for being well integrated, so 20 years later, what is it like now?”

Lilian Thuram: “First of all I think that our win in 1998 was important for French social cohesion, for asking questions which hadn’t been been asked before, I mean about living together, the fact that France is a multi-coloured nation so it was also a good time to talk about colonialism, slavery… Also 1998 was the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in France, so I think it brought all these questions out into the open.”

Isabelle Kumar: “But now, after the European elections, we see a very different society in France… don’t we?”

Lilian Thuram: “Yes, of course, but there is the economic crisis. It’s clear that in an economic crisis all of us become a bit disorientated because the future looks complicated, and that’s why some people sometimes turn to the extreme right. But once again, it’s very difficult to compare the situation today with the situation in 1998. I still think that people who were there in 1998 were positively influenced by living that together.”

Isabelle Kumar: “You’ve just got back from a tour of Africa, publicising your new book about the continent 'My Black Stars'. What would you like to tell the children of Africa?”

Lilian Thuram: “I would tell them, whether they are from Africa or any other continent… You have to explain to children that we are not born racist. We become racist, because racism is a cultural thing. I mean that throughout history we have always been shut into hierarchies linked to the colour of our skin, and so hierarchies are there in all of us and we have to question them in order to overcome them.”

Isabelle Kumar: “You really think that this is not part of human nature, this fear of other people?”

Lilian Thuram: “Well, to answer your question, do you really think that sexism is part of human nature? No, I think that sexism is the oldest of the hierarchies which exist between men and women and it’s a construction, used to exploit women. And racism is exactly the same thing. At a certain moment in history, in order to exploit non-white people, their inferiority had to be constructed.”

Isabelle Kumar: “And when you talk to young Africans, does this message get through?”

Lilian Thuram: “Yes it does because I try to show them that we are just imitating this example. And because we’re imitating it sometimes we close ourselves off inside the colour of our skins, our religions, our ways of thinking. So we have to question our ways of thinking because each of us, we are the fruit of the past. And what is interesting for example, is when I make jokes with children about the colour of our skins. I say to them, ‘Look what colour are you?’. And some say they are black, others say they are white… And I show them that black and white doesn’t exist in fact, it’s just a way of saying it.

“And I have learned that from my own children. One day my son, when he was four-years-old, I said, ‘My dear, are you the only black boy in your class?’ and he said ‘But daddy, I’m not black, I’m brown’, and I said, ‘OK son, and the others in the class, what colour are they?’ and he said ‘But they are pink!’ And so you see that saying black or white is just conditioning. So I think it is that: questioning children about our way of thinking about the world. And racism is really linked to a way of thinking about the world.”

Isabelle Kumar: “Which brings me to your comic book ‘Our History’. It’s really meant to try to make children understand that there aren’t different races, that we’re all part of the human race, but is it also meant as an internal psychological journey to try to understand and take responsibility for what happened when you were young, and all that?”

Lilian Thuram: ‘My Black Stars’ and ‘Our History’ – these two books also explain my life, and it’s very important of course to explain racism to children, because racism has a history and so there you are, I think… if ever in the collective subconscious, the story of black people starts with slavery, it’s completely understandable that we shut them into an inferior position, because then black people are seen as ex-slaves. That’s why I wrote this book, to try to give information to people so they can change the way they see things.”

Isabelle Kumar: “You mentioned your football career, and we asked our social media fans to send in questions for you, and we got one from someone called Glody Morinio, who asks whether you suffered racial discrimination when you played for France?”

Lilian Thuram: “When I was in the French team no, but when we played in Italy it’s true, sadly that very often some supporters made monkey noises when people of my colour touched the ball. But I understood it was just part of the same thing. Why were they making monkey noises and not cat of dog noises? Quite simply because for centuries people were told that black people were the missing link in the chain between monkeys and white people. And even in school books, they said that there was a superior race.”

Isabelle Kumar: “Can you forgive them for behaving like that?”

Lilian Thuram: “Ah well, but I see that it’s only the result of the history, and we just have to understand why.”

Isabelle Kumar: “You don’t think there is more racism in football stadiums than there was 10 or 15 years ago?”

Lilian Thuram: “What is dramatic is that in fact, racism has existed in football stadiums, the football world in general, doesn’t seem able to stop it. If you analyse what happened with Dani Alvès, everyone loved what Dani Alvès did, and I still think that it wasn’t what he did that was important.”

Isabelle Kumar: “He ate a banana that someone threw at him, didn’t he?”

Lilian Thuram: “Exactly. But this wasn’t the important thing. I think we have to look at the fact that the referees did nothing. You have to analyse the fact that none of the other players did anything. And the person who behaved in this racist way ought to have faced the consequences.”

Isabelle Kumar: “Did the other players support you when you were playing football?”

Lilian Thuram: “That depends on the players. But once again, many people don’t understand that racism is above all a form of violence. Whenever I wanted to complain about verbal racism or racist acts, many players would say ‘Oh you know, it doesn’t matter, they just want to upset you’, and I would say that racism in football is less dangerous than racism in society…”

Isabelle Kumar: “How can you say that? Football is very influential in our society!”

Lilian Thuram: “No. When you are football players and you come up against racism at that moment I know exactly what is going on. When someone makes monkey noises at me they are saying, ‘OK sure, you’re a football player, you’re famous, you have money, but you are still inferior to me because I am white’. But you see I have no doubts about myself, I know I have no problem and that these people have the problem. But in society, when you suffer racism, when they won’t give you a job, they won’t rent you a flat, when there are very negative prejudices which mean you can’t climb the ladder, that’s real violence.”

Isabelle Kumar: “Exactly on that point we have a question from someone called Arthur Eld, who asks if you think FIFA and UEFA are doing enough to combat racism in the stadiums?”

Lilian Thuram: “They are setting up anti-racism campaigns. But I think that they could go further of course! It is abnormal that football hasn’t found a better solution after such a long time. So that means that the responses so far, like the response of Dani Alvès, aren’t the best response, because only a week later the same thing happened to a player from AC Milan.”

Isabelle Kumar: “I have a question from Chrétien Wemby, who asks if you plan to train a football team one day?”

Lilian Thuram: “Oh no, really no! I have to say that I think what I’m doing now is much more important than football.”

Isabelle Kumar: “Was there a key moment for you, when you said to yourself, ‘When I finish playing football, I’m going to start this campaign against racism?’.”

Lilian Thuram: “I was born in Guadeloupe, and moved to Paris when I was nine-years-old and at that time there was this little cartoon on the television, where they had two cows, one very very stupid black one, called Blackie and a very very intelligent white cow, Whitie and some of my friends called me the black cow’s name, Blackie and that made me sad.

“And I remember one day coming home from school I asked my mother why black people were seen so negatively and she didn’t know the answer. She said, ‘You know darling, that’s just the way it is, people are racist, and that will never change’. That was a very very bad answer of my mother’s because it was an invitation to remain a victim, to stay with that sort of fatalism, but luckily I questioned that idea and I understood that racism is an intellectual construction and so we can de-construct it.”

Isabelle Kumar: “The rise of the National Front in France could be a sign that the French are becoming more racist or more afraid of immigrants. Do you ever think, right I’m leaving France?”

Lilian Thuram: “My grandfather was born in 1908, 60 years after the abolition of slavery in France. My mother was born in 1947 during segregation in the United States, during colonialism. For myself, I was born in 1972, during apartheid in South Africa. And here we are in 2014. And I still think that racism was much worse when my grandfather was born. At that time, black people weren’t considered part of humanity. And that wasn’t long ago. All European societies now are more or less multi-coloured. Whether we like it or not, there is always an extreme opinion, and you can’t stop those people believing those ideas. But I think that it is extremely dangerous to make racism acceptable by saying that more and more people are racist. On the contrary I think that in France there are more and more people who are open to diversity.”

Isabelle Kumar: “And now a question from Samer Chaloub, who asks how policies and reforms can help in the fight against racistm. You were very critical of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, do you think François Hollande is doing better?”

Lilian Thuram: “When you’re president of the Republic of France, and you can make speeches like Mr Sarkozy did in Dakar for example, when he explained that black people had never made a mark on history, it was a racist speech. When you go into deprived French housing estates and you say that they need cleaning up with a high-pressure hose, that’s a racist speech. And Mr Hollande hasn’t made any racist speeches yet. And if he ever does make a racist speech, well then I’ll denounce his ideas. Once again, you see, I think that the best way to tackle racism, speaking about the recent European election, for example, is to go out and vote.”

Isabelle Kumar: “Discrimination as we have already said, doesn’t stop with the colour of someone’s skin, it is also a discrimination against poor people. So turning to the World Cup in Brazil, I’d like to ask you, can spending so much on a sporting event be justified?”

Lilian Thuram: “It isn’t football that is the problem. It is political choices. And yes, I think citizens should question their governments. And saying, ‘Look yes, football is fine but perhaps other things are more important. Like constructing schools, hospitals, trying to establish the best social security cover possible for everyone’. And yes, they are right actually.”

Isabelle Kumar: “So as I’m sure you can believe, we received lots of questions about the World Cup and about the French team. So I’ve chosen a question from Baba Bah, who asks what do you think about Samir Nasri not being selected for the team?”

Lilian Thuram: “Well of course as soon as you are a trainer or a manager you have to make choices, and as a general rule you make choices to achieve the best team possible. And the best possible team contains the strongest possible players. And players who can play together as a team.”

Isabelle Kumar: “So if you had a magic wand… would you like to be there playing with the French team?”

Lilian Thuram: “Well it would be quite something to be playing in the World Cup in Brazil. As of course it would have been symbolically amazing to have playing in a World Cup in Africa.”

Isabelle Kumar: “And finally I’ll just finish of with a question from Tommy Aditya who asks ‘Who was your favourite player when you were a child?’ And I’ll add the question, and who’s your favourite player today?”

Lilian Thuram: “When I was little my favourite player was Jean Tigana, because I played mid-field and I thought he was the best player in the world. But today I don’t have a favourite player. There are some extraordinary players, I mean when you see players like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Yaya Touré, these are extraordinary players, so choosing just one favourite, well, that’s for children and, well I’ve grown up a bit, I don’t have just one favourite player any more!”

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