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The European Championship starts in France in two days. Twenty-four teams will compete in the biggest soccer competition after the World Cup. Many people in France hope the event will help boost the country's economy and its spirits. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, there is controversy swirling around the French home team.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Workers test the sound system at the giant fan zone being set up under the Eiffel Tower. Paris is decked out in blue, white and red, and the slogan Allez Les Blues - go Blues - is everywhere. But in the last week, Les Bleus have been at the center of a controversy. It was sparked by a player, Karim Benzema, who was not selected for the national team. Benzema, a French French citizen of Algerian descent, charges he was excluded from Les Bleus because of racism. Mark Owen is with broadcaster France 24.
MARK OWEN: Karim Benzema is possibly the most gifted striker in French football, and in many ways, he's an idol for thousands, maybe millions of youngsters who are French-speaking across the globe. But Karim Benzema is also a really controversial character.
BEARDSLEY: Owens says Benzema, a star play for the Spanish team Real Madrid, would have surely been chosen if he wasn't under investigation for allegedly blackmailing a fellow player using a sex tape. Politicians from left and right weighed in on the controversy, noting that the French squad of 23 includes 13 players of Arab, African and Caribbean origin.
A leader of the far-right National Front Party said Benzema should go and play for Algeria, but President Francois Hollande said France should stand behind its team.
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FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "Of course we have to fight discrimination and racism," he said, "but the French team was not selected for their race or origin."
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: In 1998, a multiracial French team of black, white and Arab origin players won the World Cup at home in Paris. They were feted as national heroes, says Mark Owen.
OWEN: That team from 1998 was held up as the team that represented that the mixed society of France really, really works. In football, anything works when you're winning. When you're losing, it all falls apart, and everybody searches for a scapegoat.
BEARDSLEY: Though some prominent French voices have questioned the lack of players of North African origin in French football, a poll shows 93 percent of the French don't believe their soccer is racist. But there have also been questions raised about players' patriotism because of their attitude towards the French national anthem.
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BEARDSLEY: Last November just after the terrorist attacks in Paris, "La Marseillaise" was played at a Real Madrid game. As the anthem ended, TV cameras showed Karim Benzema spitting on the ground, an action that angered many people in France. Emmanuel Blanchard of the Institute of Political Studies says players with dual nationality face closer scrutiny.
EMMANUEL BLANCHARD: (Through interpreter) The French soccer team is scrutinized by commentators, politicians and intellectuals who want players to show exemplary behavior and patriotism. That was never an issue in the past.
BEARDSLEY: The assistant coach of Les Bleus says France might have problems with integration, but he says to project that issue onto the national team on the eve of the European Championship is intolerable. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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