WASHINGTON—The French daily Le Figaro, a bastion of tradition, described the match between France and Togo in the recent World Cup tournament as the only game played between two African teams. It was referring to the overwhelming presence of black players on the French squad.

The world is not surprised that the U.S. secretary of state is a black woman, nor was it astonishing that Britain’s star television anchor was, until recently, a black man. People assume diversity as a notable feature in these two countries, especially in America. By contrast, observers, including the French themselves, were amazed to see the racial composition of the French team. The matter has been the subject of much attention these past four weeks.

A few racist Spanish supporters even engaged in monkey-screeching antics just before their team faced France in the quarterfinals (ironically, some Frenchmen considered Spain an extension of North Africa until not long ago). This is an indication of how slowly some Europeans are adapting to the changes of the modern world.

Ethnic diversity in French soccer is not entirely new. When France won the World Cup in 1998, its slogan was “black, blanc et beur” (black, white and North African), a play on the words describing the tricolor. However, only three of the 11 players in that staring lineup were black, in contrast to the seven in this World Cup—plus Zinedine Zidane, the son of two Algerian parents.

The national origin of the players covers the map of the former French empire except Indochina: the West Indies (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana), North Africa (Algeria), West Africa (Mali, Senegal), and Equatorial Africa (Congo). Three of the players were actually African-born, including icons Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira.

Analysts have complained that this does not reflect the reality of French—or European—society. And they are right. Just eight months ago, France was shocked by the eruption of violent riots in the “banlieues” that surround Paris and other cities. The children of Arab and African immigrants in Parisian suburbs such as Seine-Saint-Denis continue to symbolize the failure of French republicanism to absorb immigration.

Pap N’Diaye, a scholar of black history in Paris, thinks that “the celebrity of the player tends to suspend the most negative stereotypes about blacks. One can therefore be a fan of Henry, Vieira and Thuram, and at the same time have a racist behavior." He has a point. As do those who think France tolerates diversity in a sports team but not in politics (only 11 out of 577 members of the National Assembly are minorities) or big business (only one soccer team has a black president—Olympique de Marseille).

My view, however, is slightly more upbeat. You have to start somewhere. If sports are the most immediate channel for the expression of diversity, so be it. The fact that everyone—except the French far-right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen—is pointing to the contrast between the diversity of the team and the rigid, unrepresentative system prevailing in French society is helpful. No change has come about in Western civilization without the exercise of critical minds. The discussion about the composition of the team—especially if we take into account the fact that for Europeans, like for Latin Americans, soccer is much more than a sport—can get people thinking. Symbols can be instrumental in beginning to modify people’s mind-sets.

The reason there has been much less integration in France than, say, in the United States, is a republican system that defined identity in narrow terms and a socioeconomic system that was not conducive to permanent wealth-creation and social mobility. The ghettos formed on the outskirts of French cities have in turn bred social resentment. The result has been mutual distrust.

Perhaps the growing acceptance of diversity through symbols such as a national soccer team will eventually help foster a political and economic system that is porous enough for today’s vertiginous world and helps to diffuse tension by spreading out opportunity.

The irony of thousands of French whites who inundated the Champs-Elysees these past four weeks defining their identity through the faces of people such as Zaire-born Makelele and Senegal-born Vieira is striking enough to merit recognition.

Let us hope not all of this will be lost in France’s—and Europe’s—minds in the months and years to come.