WASHINGTON – A light-hearted quip about a soccer team has sparked a serious debate about identity politics and the merits of France’s “colorblind” republican model versus American multiculturalism.
When the host of American television’s popular “The Daily Show” joked that the real winner of the World Cup was “Africa,” it prompted a fierce reaction on social media and drew a pointed rebuttal from the French ambassador to Washington.
Trevor Noah, the popular comedian who hosts the TV show, was calling attention to the fact that many of the winning French team’s players are of African origin – immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants.
“Africa won the World Cup,” he said, before adding: “I get it. They have to say it’s the French team, but look at those guys: you don’t get that tan in the south of France!”
Noah’s gag provoked an avalanche of reactions on social media, reviving angry debates about the very different approaches to race, immigration, and assimilation taken by France and the United States.
While many commenters found Noah’s remarks amusing, others accused the 34-year-old – who grew up under South Africa’s race-based apartheid system, with a white father and black mother – as doing the work of the extreme right.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud immediately sent Noah a stern letter saying that “nothing could be less true.”
“The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity,” Araud said. “Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin.”
“To us, there is no hyphenated identity, roots are an individual reality,” the ambassador continued. “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,” said Araud, who regularly defends France’s republican model on Twitter.
That republican model is based on the idea that true equality can be achieved only when the state interacts with people as individuals, not as members of national, racial, religious or linguistic groups.
That precludes any official collecting of race-based data, for example, but it also rules out the affirmative action approach used in the US explicitly to overcome – not prolong – years of discrimination.
Some French see Americans as relentlessly race-conscious in ways that are needlessly damaging. But some Americans say the French system allows minority groups to live on in official invisibility, facing self-perpetuating social and economic obstacles.
For Noah, the French simply need to get a sense of humor.
“When I’m saying ‘African,’ I’m not saying it to exclude them from their French-ness, I’m saying it to include them in my African-ness,” Noah said in a video posted Wednesday on Twitter. “I’m saying, ‘I see you, my French brother of African descent.'”
Noah said he recognised that the far right in both France and the US used the argument of people’s origin to attack immigrants and their descendants at a time both countries face sensitive immigration issues.
But he added that he found it “strange” to suggest that France’s soccer stars could not be simultaneously French and African.
“Why can’t they be both?” he asked. “Why is that duality only afforded to a select group of people?”
“What they’re arguing here is in order to be French, you have to erase everything that is African?” Noah continued.
“America is not a perfect country, but what I love about this place is that people can still celebrate their identity in their American-ness,” he said.
An American can attend a parade to celebrate his or her Puerto Rican or Irish heritage, for example, while still being American, Noah said.
The comedian said that some French media and politicians evoke a person’s African origin when the person is unemployed, accused of a crime or “considered unsavory.”
But “when their children go on to provide a World Cup victory for France, we should only refer to them as ‘France,'” he added, referencing the case of Mamoudou Gassama, the 22-year-old African immigrant who was granted French citizenship after scaling four floors to rescue a child hanging from a balcony.
Noah said he would continue to sing the players’ praises as both Africans and as French.
“And if French people are saying they cannot be both, then I think they have a problem – not me.”
Former US president Barack Obama touched on the same subject, but a bit less contentiously, during a visit to Johannesburg to mark the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela.
Praising the virtues of diversity, Obama singled out the French team, adding with a smile, “Not all these folks look like Gauls to me (but) they are French, they are French!”