“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.” Here Noah paused. “Now that line here was interesting,” he said. “Now, I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I think it’s more a reflection of France’s colonialism.” The audience applauded and cheered. “They all have something in common. Like, all of those players, if you trace their lineages, it’s like ‘How did you guys become French?’ ‘How did your families start speaking French?’ Ooohh.”
Noah continued from the letter. “Unlike in the United States of America,” he read, to oohs from the audience, “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. By calling them an African team it seems you are denying their Frenchness. This even in jest legitimizes the ideology which defines whiteness as the only way of being French.”
Let’s step back for a second. It’s hard to imagine Noah was trying to legitimize the notion that a person could not truly be French if she or he were of African descent. (It’s also hard to imagine him congratulating a U.S. sports team for an “African” victory either, although as Noah pointed out in the segment, context is everything, and who’s telling the joke matters.) Noah said he recognized that the French far right (he called them “Nazis”) had criticized the French team for having too many players of color, and said he obviously wasn’t endorsing that line.
But the heart of the issue is the question of hyphenated identity, which is one of the biggest fault lines between France, and other European countries, and the United States when it comes to how individuals see themselves as members of the collective. In the United States, just about everyone’s hyphenated. In France, or among parts of the French establishment, the notion of communautarisme, American-style identity politics in which groups derive identity and clout from their backgrounds, is seen as anathema, an affront to the French ideal that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state, as I’ve written about here. It’s a hard-won notion of citizenship that comes from a history in which the ancien régime was overthrown to create a modern French state.
It’s also an ideal—filled with ironies and inconsistencies that Noah could skewer in a way only an outsider to France could do. “My thing, coming from South Africa, coming from Africa, and even watching the World Cup in the United States of America, black people all over the world were celebrating the Africanness of the French players, not in a negative way but in a positive way: ‘Look at these Africans who can become French,’” Noah said. In a speech in South Africa this week, Barack Obama also praised the French team as a symbol of how diversity “delivers practical benefits.” “Not all these folks look like Gauls to me; they are French, they are French,” he said. (He might have been referring to former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s now infamous remarks that all French students should learn in school about “our ancestors, the Gauls.”)