Ger Gilroy: Can Euro 2016 heal a wounded nation?

The idea of a progressive France is suffering as the nation is beset by question marks

Eiffel Tower, Euro 2016, France

The Eiffel Tower is blue white red after the Euro 2016 Group A soccer match between France and Romania, as part of the Euro 2016 Soccer Championship in Paris, Friday, June 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Watching from France as people connect the dots between the hate speech of the Brexit campaigners and Jo Cox’s death has been difficult.

Here, away from real life, you want to believe that somehow a big party of football can help heal a nation, can change things, can provide a momentary glimpse of what life could be like that we’ll all row in behind. It’s forlorn, but it’s seductive. We all want to be buyers when someone is selling a dream.

France, though, is a place where hate speech has become a norm; where an entire race has been blamed for the terrorism which has irrevocably changed the country and where football is being asked to somehow momentarily fix things. The new normal is very heavily armed police at shopping centres to check your bags. It’s a reality that people in Belfast lived with for a couple of decades, and it comes at a long-term psychological cost.

The new normal is police dressed in body armour carrying automatic weapons standing at the top of streets. The new normal is strikes and violent protests, and soldiers in full combat gear holding even bigger guns walking through squares as children play and tourists eat ice cream, pretending they don’t see anything weird in this.

French police officers patrol at Trocadero Plaza next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Wednesday, June 15, 2016. French authorities are on especially high alert around the European Championship soccer tournament taking place across the country through July 10. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

On tonight’s Off The Ball after Northern Ireland have either qualified or crashed out, we’ll play an excerpt of a longer interview I did with Javier Prieto Santos – available to podcast later tonight here. Santos runs a magazine, So Foot, that sees football as a reason to talk to other humans, not the reason. The magazine was born in 2003 in the midst of the greatest French generation of footballers, who blew apart the assumed irrelevance of the game in France as well as the notion that France could never win.

They were truly a golden generation but they brought with them the complications of modernity. They were not monochromatic. They had interests and experiences at odds with the mainstream. Large tracts of France were uncertain about supporting them and So Foot chronicled it all, becoming a bell weather for the new progressive France.

Progressive France is suffering at the minute and Javier isn’t buying the hope or the dreams being sold around this team. “I hate France” he says at one point. He hates the small people ruining the country, the establishment allowing them to propagate their lies and the team for being so bland. Things could be better. Without a lot of work, things could be infinitely better. That’s the most frustrating part. It’s a story and an attitude I understood. Things could be better, things could be much better.