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Trevor Noah’s World Cup joke shows how the world misunderstands the French

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Trevor Noah weighed in on the meaning of French identity. But does he understand it himself?
By Annabelle Timsit
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Gérard Araud is not like other ambassadors. The French envoy to the US has had a distinguished career–from ambassador to the UN to France’s chief Iran negotiator and ambassador to Israel–but he is clearly uncomfortable in the role of the conformist DC diplomat. So, he tweets, a lot, to his close to 28,000 followers, often getting into Twitter fights with prominent intellectuals and trolls alike.

The latest target of Araud’s ire is Daily Show host Trevor Noah. At issue is a segment that ran on the Comedy Central show on July 17, in which Noah joked that France’s victory in the 2018 World Cup was really a win for Africa. That’s because many of the players on the team have roots that can be traced back to different African countries. Young prodigy Kylian Mbappé’s mother was born in Algeria, for example, while his father was born in Cameroon. Blaise Matuidi’s parents were Angolan refugees who fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then onto France, where he was born.

Noah’s joke set off a full-fledged controversy, culminating in the ambassador sending a formal letter condemning his comments and noting that all but two of the team’s 23 players were born in France. “France is indeed a cosmopolitan country,” Araud writes, “but every citizen is part of the French identity.”

To people outside France, the debate between a comedian and an ambassador over soccer may seem odd. But the joke has struck a nerve because it intersects with the very serious issue of French national identity.

France and the freedom from difference

In the segment, entitled “Did Africa just win the World Cup?,” Noah jubilantly says, “I get it, I get it, they have to say it’s the ‘French team,’ but look at those guys.” The screen cuts to a photo of 11 French players, five of whom are black. “Basically, France is Africans’ back-up team,” he continues. “Once Senegal and Nigeria got knocked out, that’s who we root for.”

Noah was far from the only person to have riffed on the idea that the French soccer players made up the “sixth African team” of the tournament. Even Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro weighed in. And many took the team’s victory as an opportunity to decry what they viewed as France’s institutionalized racism and Islamophobia. Author and law professor Khaled Beydoun tweeted a plea much to that effect, which was liked 522,000 times:

But what Noah, Beydoun, and others may not realize is that the soccer players themselves don’t want to be seen as anything other than French, for reasons that go back to the founding of the French Republic.

Before the French Revolution, a person’s “Frenchness” was typically seen as deriving from their Gallo-Roman ancestry. But the changing demographics and evolving mentality of French people during the politically tumultuous 18th century meant that French people had to be defined, and united, by more than just a common ancestry. The future of the French nation-state was at stake.

The Republican model, developed mainly by the Jacobins, gave the French a unified identity “derived, functionally, from a voluntary commitment to common political values and a common fate,” according to William Safran, author of State, Nation, National Identity, and Citizenship: France as a Test Case. To unite French people into a functional nation-state, it was necessary to create a notion of peoplehood based on common values and an adherence to the Republican ideal. Ethnic and religious differences were meant to be transcended by the common identity of Frenchman. The French Revolution sealed this new identity, as Safran writes: “membership in the French national community meant being the heirs of the people of the Enlightenment, the makers of revolution, and the promoters of the rights of man.”

That’s where the difference between multiculturalist states like the US and assimilationist states like France really comes in. The Jacobin universalist definition of the French national identity promises to allow people freedom from differences; if everyone is French first, then everyone is equal. The “melting-pot,” multiculturalist American model allows people the freedom to be different, but still be American.

Of course, France has sometimes failed to uphold its ideals. Jews were not given full citizenship until the convocation of the Great Sanhedrin by Napoleon in 1807, and even then, their rights were rescinded during World War II by the Vichy regime. During the colonialist era, France attempted to force the assimilation of people in countries like Tunisia and Algeria into the French Republican model.

But like the US, the French national project is a constantly evolving work in progress. And in France, considering the French national soccer players as anything other than French on the basis of their race is perceived as offensive. As Araud writes, “Unlike the United States of America, France does not refer to their citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us, there is no hyphenated identity, roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team, it seems you are denying their Frenchness. This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.”

The limits of cross-cultural understanding

The feud didn’t end with the ambassador’s letter. That same day, Trevor Noah responded to Araud on his show. “I was shocked at how angry a lot of French people got,” he said.

The ambassador’s letter prompted Noah to do some research. He found out about the fact that, for years, xenophobic and racist far-right politicians have used the excuse of the players’ African roots as a way to deride the national soccer team as not really French. But Noah doesn’t appear to agree with the French notion of identity. “Black people all over the world were celebrating the Africanness of the French players,” he said, continuing: “People go, ‘They’re not African, they’re French.’ And I’m like, ‘Why can’t they be both?'” In Noah’s understanding, French culture requires the soccer players to erase their African roots in order to be accepted within the national identity. By contrast, he says, the US allows people to celebrate other kinds of identity as well as their Americanness.

But to the French, the idea is not to suppress diversity. Rather, the point is to celebrate a common heritage, based on values and a code of life, that unites all French people, as opposed to highlighting what makes them different from one another.

In imposing the identity of “African” on these players, Noah also ignored the wishes of professional athletes themselves, some of whom have responded directly to this controversy. Benjamin Mendy, who is on the French national soccer team, responded to a tweet by a French sports publication of each player’s non-French family origin with a series of French flags and the word “fixed”:

Professional basketball player Nicolas Batum, who is French with a Cameroonian father, posted this message on Twitter on July 17:

The feud between a South African comedian and a French diplomat reveals just how difficult it is to step outside one’s own cultural framework and understand the ways that other cultures and nations conceive of, and reinforce, identity. As Noah eloquently put it, ”we live in a world where nuance is a thing that is in short supply.”

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