When France won the World Cup this July, their second win in twenty years, Paris leapt to its feet and marched in mass to the Arc de Triomphe. We streamed in the hundreds of thousands into the street, compelled by a force greater than any individual will, the kind of collective spirit that fuels a protest, a rebellion, a revolution. By the time the impromptu parade turned west onto the Rue de Rivoli, I starting looking around at my fellow revelers. I wanted to know who “we” were, that pernicious pronoun that is so often deployed to distinguish between “us” and “them,” to identify who belongs, to determine whether our spontaneous assembly would read as a parade or a riot. We were French of every color and stripe, nationals and expats and immigrants, singing the national anthem in accents that spoke only of our camaraderie, our exuberance, and our pride.
The day after France’s victory, Trevor Noah, the host of the American political comedy program “The Daily Show,” congratulated “Africa”—the continent—on its historic World Cup win. Citing the disproportionate representation of people of color on the French national football team, Noah quipped, “You don’t get that tan by hanging out in the south of France, my friends.” The audience laughed and applauded.
Noah’s joke was ill received in France, to the extent that Gérard Araud, the outspoken French ambassador to the United States, felt compelled to respond. “By calling them an African team, it seems you are denying their Frenchness,” Araud wrote in a formal letter to the late night host. “This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.” For Araud, Noah’s innocent comment ironically recalled the nativist rhetoric of the French far right, which has routinely condemned the national football team as an “unworthy” representative of France.
By imposing a uniform “African” identity on the French national football team, Noah also ignored the players’ explicit self-identification as French and only French. Araud continued: “As many of the players have stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country, but the great majority of them—all but two out of twenty-three—were born in France. They were educated in France. They learned to play soccer in France. They are French citizens. They are proud of their country: France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.”
Noah, who is of South African descent, was not convinced. In a web-exclusive “between the scenes” segment filmed on Wednesday, Noah responded to Araud’s criticism, claiming that the cosmopolitan ideal to which the ambassador aspired was contingent on the effacement of France’s violent colonial past. For Noah, the players’ “rich and various backgrounds” were in fact “a reflection of France’s colonialism.”
Khaled Beydoun, a law professor and the author of a recent book on Islamophobia, concurred with Noah in an opinion piece published late last week in The Guardian. For Beydoun, the “romantic ideal” of racial colorblindness belies the dismal reality of racial relations in contemporary France, which he describes apocalyptically as “a nation ripped apart by explosive race riots in the overpopulated immigrant suburbs of Paris, Marseille and other metropolises; a state that institutionalized Islamophobia and orients Muslim identity as antithetical to French identity; a political landscape where the xenophobic and white supremacist Front National is a mainstream political party.”
As a scholar of the Algerian War of Independence and what I describe in my dissertation as the “traumatic reverberations” of decolonization in contemporary France, I have to admit that Noah has a valid point. Yet his comments nevertheless reveal a critical misunderstanding of cultural and racial politics in contemporary France (as well as, I would argue, a misleading and idealized misrepresentation of the American “melting pot” myth, but I will leave that argument to the good folks at Back Story).
In Noah’s understanding, assimilation into the French national identity requires the renunciation or erasure of one’s cultural, ethnic, or racial origins. For Noah, the French model of assimilation is intolerant of difference and blithely ignorant of the colonial conflicts that have shaped contemporary France. By contrast, American multiculturalism, commonly known as the “melting pot” model, celebrates difference and hyphenated identities (although this was not always the case; President Theodore Roosevelt, in an address to the Knights of Columbus at Carnegie Hall in 1915, famously argued that “a hyphenated American is not an American at all,” but rather “a traitor to American institutions”).
Contrary to Noah’s assumption, however, the objective of assimilation is not necessarily to suppress cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, racial, or religious diversity in France, but rather to celebrate the civic values that constitute the French community as a whole. Forged by revolution, this notion of national identity emanates from the founding ideology of modern France. Following the overthrow of the French monarchy in 1792, it was necessary for the founders of the First French Republic to articulate a notion of national belonging derived from “a voluntary commitment to common political values” and “an adherence to the Republican ideal.” As the political scientist William Safran has argued, “membership in the French national community meant being heirs of the people of the Enlightenment, the makers of revolution, and the promoters of the rights of man.”
The enduring cleavage between the French assimilation model and American multiculturalism comes down to the contested legacy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution(s), and the expansion of the French colonial empire throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. It hardly takes a historian to recognize that the universal ideals of the French Enlightenment did not apply to the indigenous or otherwise racialized populations of France’s colonies, where colonized peoples were denied equal legal protections while simultaneously made subject to the full force of the law. And France, the nation responsible for the revolutionary “Declaration of the Rights of Man” in 1789, also has a sordid history of human rights abuses, including the mass extermination of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, the participation in the Transatlantic slave trade, the complicity of the Vichy Regime in the deportation of French Jews under the German Occupation, the systematic use of torture against Algerian combatants during the Algerian War of Independence, and the ongoing pervasiveness of racial profiling and police brutality in communities of color.
This contradiction is at the core of Noah’s controversial comments on the World Cup. For Noah, the question is not simply, “Why can’t the football players express pride in their French identity while also commemorating their immigrant roots?” but rather, “What is it about the racial or religious identity of these players that the French find so particularly threatening to their notion of national belonging?” Put another way, why is it considered an insult or a threat to identify as an African or an Arab or a Muslim in France?
In his 2007 book, Le communautarisme: Mythes et réalités, the French sociologist Laurent Bouvet addresses this issue through an analysis of communautarisme, or “communitarianism,” in contemporary France. In his introduction, Bouvet distinguishes between two notions of community, one singular and the other plural. In his 1782 book Considerations on the Government of Poland, the Enlightenment-era thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose political writings inspired the founders of the First French Republic, defines community in the singular as the unanimity “requisite to the formation of the body politic and of the fundamental laws necessary to its existence.” In its ideal incarnation, this idea of community constitutes the condition of possibility and legitimacy for the exercise of popular sovereignty, which is rooted in the rational and volitional participation of its members in a shared sociopolitical sphere defined by common civic values.
Community in the plural, however, evokes conditions of belonging based on multiple (often exclusionary) criteria of cultural identification, such as race, religion, or region. Similar to identity politics, communitarianism emphasizes the constitutive role of specific community structures in the subjective formation of the individual, contesting the idea of an autonomous political subject, impervious to the influence of culture, ideology, or class. Beyond identity-based claims to greater inclusion and visibility, communitarianism challenges the representative capacity of existing institutions and political assemblages. Consequently, communitarianism calls into question not only who counts as French, but also what it means, essentially, to be French.
Far from frivolous, then, this quarrel between a South African comedian and the French ambassador to the United States touches on a number of the core problems concerning cultural and racial politics in contemporary France. To debate the origins and identity of the French national football team is to engage in a philosophical inquiry into the autonomy of the subject and the relation between the self and society. But beyond the abstract concerns of ontology, the debate also reveals a cleavage in sociological conceptions of multiculturalism and pluralism in liberal democracies. And from a political perspective, the debate interrogates the role and impact of identity in strategic coalition building.
I am reminded of a story from Homer’s Odyssey. After twenty years at sea, Odysseus returns home alone after all of his companions have been slaughtered. He puts his house in order, he kills the men who plundered his stores, and he makes love with his beloved wife, Penelope. He is tired, and it is dark. But his journey is not over, and he cannot yet rest in peace. The prophet Tiresius tells his Odysseus that he must make one final sacrifice to Poseidon, the vengeful god of the sea:
“‘Go forth once more, you must . . . carry your well-planed oar until you come to a race of people who know nothing of the sea, whose food is never seasoned with salt, strangers all to ships with their crimson prows and long slim oars, wings that make ships fly. And here is your sign—unmistakable, clear, so clear you cannot miss it: When another traveler falls in with you and calls that weight across your shoulder a fan to winnow grain, then plant your bladed, balanced oar in the earth and sacrifice fine beasts to the lord god of the sea, Poseidon. . . .’”
Odysseus will not know peace until the tools of war go unrecognized. And I cannot help but wonder how many decades, how many generations, how many centuries, it will take for race in France to shed its status as a weapon, a threat, a constant reminder of French colonialism. When will a hyphenated identity cease to cut as a knife across the symbolic unity of France? What will it mean to be French in a nation that has neither forgotten nor effaced its colonial past, but has truly embraced its once colonized subjects to build a better future together, for all?
But the sad fact of the matter is that race and religion remain weapons of division in contemporary France, and to bury them now, before we are ready, would be to sow the bad seeds of resentment. I opened this post with a triumphant image of national unity—a cheering crowd of football fans all striding confidently down the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe—but I left out the part about the smoke bombs exploding in clouds of blue and red on the pavement, and how I thought in that moment about the unthinkable: what would happen to us all in the case of a terrorist attack, at a time and place when we were at our most proud, and our most vulnerable.
France may have won the World Cup, but its fight against the forces that would destroy it from within—the racism, the xenophobia, the bigotry—is far from over.