“Africa won the World Cup!”
Last month, that simple sentence, uttered by The Daily Show host Trevor Noah on his popular satirical news programme, caused much anger, frustration and debate.
The South African comedian was of course referring to the French National Team’s victory at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Almost all of the players in the team were born in France – two arrived in the country as toddlers. Also, out of 23 players, 12 were of African descent.
When Noah expressed his delight in seeing “Africa” win the coveted trophy, he probably did not expect to find himself in the middle of a heated debate about French identity.
In France, however, many commentators were indignant to see “Les Bleus” qualified as “Africans”. As the debate continued, even some of the players themselves joined in. For example, the team’s defender Benjamin Mendy responded to a tweet by the Sporf website which had indicated where each player’s family originated from with his own tweet containing the names of the France squad with a France flag next to each. This reaction was understandable in a country where non-white citizens are often reduced to their ancestry and treated as if they are not as French as their white compatriots.
But did Noah really make a faux pas, or did he just expose a major problem about the way the French national identity is defined?
Noah was not the first person to comment on the African heritage of some members of the French team. Since their landmark victory against Croatia on July 15 there had been many comments, jokes and statements on the racial makeup of the team, many of which were blatantly racist.
What put Noah’s well-meaning comment celebrating the African ancestry of some of the team’s members under the spotlight was an official letter written to the comedian by the French Ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud.
In the letter, the diplomat berated Noah for defining the team as “African”.
“Unlike the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin,” the ambassador said. “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.”
In response, Noah asked “Why cannot they be both [French and African]?”
For me, Noah’s response exposed the pitfalls of the assimilationist philosophy which characterises the French approach to immigration and identity.
By asserting that France does not accept hyphenated-identities – which make it possible for American citizens to acknowledge their ancestral origin without giving up their ‘Americanness’ – Ambassador Araud denied the existence of a large part of his country’s population.
Why can French people not have multiple affiliations? Why can we not recognise – and even celebrate – the plurality in our country? Player Adil Rami defines himself both as French and Moroccan, which does not make him less French than anyone of his fellow citizens.
Some say these hyphenated identities affirm white supremacist arguments claiming French citizens of African descent can never be fully French. In his letter to Noah, Araud also claimed that the comedian was using the “argument of the white supremacist”.
But why should we allow white supremacist arguments shape the way we define our multiple identities? An African comedian expressing his pride in seeing Afro-descendants become international sports heroes is in no way comparable to the approach of a racist who refuses to admit that black players can be French.
Araud’s letter also asserted that “the rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity”. Noah corrected the ambassador’s claim by stating that the racial composition of the team was mainly a reflection of French colonialism.
These athletes’ ancestors immigrated to France from territories formerly colonised or dominated by France or other European nations. So, the composition of our national team can only be truly understood through the prism of colonialism.
A common French identity cannot and should not be created by whitewashing history. These athletes should not be forced to forget their heritage – and their ancestors’ stories – in order to legitimise their Frenchness. As former US President Barack Obama said when he talked about the French national team in a recent speech, “embracing our common humanity does not mean that we have abandoned our unique ethnic and national and religious identities.”
At the end of the day, it is up to them to define who they are.
The debate on the Frenchness of black footballers did not start with Noah or Araud. Decades before the 2018 World Cup, people were already questioning whether the French national team was “French enough” – especially when the team lost.
As early as 1996, far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen argued that some members the team were “foreigners” who did not know how to sing the national anthem. But when the diverse French team won 3-0 against Brazil at the 1998 World Cup final, the debate on the players’ Frenchness mostly subsided.
In 2010, when the French team crashed out of the World Cup in South Africa at the group stage, however, the Frenchness of some players – and their commitment to their country – was once again questioned.
The entire team had walked out of a training session shortly before being eliminated from the tournament. The players had refused to train in protest at the treatment of their team-mate Nicolas Anelka. The striker was sent home for insulting the team’s manager, Raymond Domenech, during a match. (Which happened not to be true, as Domenech finally admitted in an interview earlier this year)
The media and public figures used racially charged language against the black and Muslim players holding them responsible for the team’s failure. For example, philosopher Alain Finkielkraut called the team a “gang of thugs” and said “we must take note of ethnic and religious divisions that undermine this team “. Meanwhile, Sports Minister Roselyne Bachelot branded the players “gang leaders“. At the end of this World Cup it was the Muslim and black players, such as Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra and Franck Ribery, whose reputations – and careers – took serious hits.
The following year, we learned – thanks to whistle-blower Mohamed Belkacemi who recorded a meeting – that the French Football Federation was planning to reduce the number of players of African descent in training centres by setting quotas. The scandal eventually forced the federation to abandon this project. Looking at the composition of the team that won the World Cup last month, we can only imagine where French football would have been now, if this discriminatory project had been implemented.
In the end, despite what Araud says, France is not a nation that defends the French identity of its black athletes – and black citizens in general – at all times. The non-white citizens of France are only celebrated and embraced as fully French when they perform extraordinary feats – when they win the World Cup or save the life of a child by climbing the façade of a building with bare hands. This demonstrates the fragility of non-white Frenchness: raised to the clouds when they act exceptionally and reduced to their origins at the slightest mistake.
French footballers of African descent are not any less French than their white counterparts, and they should not need to disown their African heritage to prove that.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.