PARIS—If, as the old saw has it, the United States and the United Kingdom are two countries separated by a common language, the United States and France are surely two countries separated by common ideals. But good intentions on both sides of the Atlantic often get lost in translation, with the latest example being the high-profile dispute
between late-night comedy show host Trevor Noah and France’s ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud, over the identity of the World Cup champion French national soccer team. (Noah is South African, but his show is produced in the U.S. for an American audience.)
Like the U.S., France’s republic is based on the separation of church and state, with freedom of religion and speech guaranteed. Both countries, perhaps unique among modern nation-states, lay claim to a universalist mission of expanding human rights around the globe, though both have often fallen short of their lofty rhetoric. Both are also historically diverse countries that have successfully absorbed successive waves of immigration into their national fabric.
Yet, starting from these common ideals and histories, the two countries’ political cultures diverge in ways that often make dialogue and mutual understanding all but impossible.
The most visible examples in recent years concern freedom of religion and speech, with Americans perplexed by France’s recent prohibition on Muslim headscarves in public schools and its longstanding ban on racist or anti-Semitic speech. The dispute between Noah and Araud over Noah’s joke that Africa, and not France, had won the World Cup highlights the very different understandings that the U.S. and France have of national and individual identity. The argument is even more fascinating and relevant at a moment when identity has assumed such prominence in global politics.
In taking issue with the characterization of France’s national team as African because of the overwhelming number of players of African origin, Araud pointed out that questioning the players’ French-ness because their parents emigrated from Guinea, Cameroon or Algeria echoes the racist discourse of France’s far-right. Noah responded that recognizing and identifying with the players’ African-ness need not call into question their French-ness. To the contrary, it highlights France’s exceptional diversity.
The root of the disagreement is the two countries’ very different approaches to this diversity. In France, French identity not only takes precedence over all other identity groups an individual might belong to, it is the only collective identity that is officially recognized by the French state. To underscore the exclusiveness of national identity, the French state refuses even to collect data on its citizens’ religious, ethnic or racial background, and with the occasional exception for academic researchers, it’s illegal for private individuals to do so, either.
Noah’s argument, by contrast, is a straightforward articulation of the American approach to multiple identity claims, reframing them as complementary rather than competing. The cultural differences among America’s various heterogeneous communities are not sources of weakness to be erased, but sources of strength to be celebrated. As if to underscore the degree to which this was what the French call a “dialogue de sourds,” or dialogue between two deaf people, what Noah was proposing—multiculturalism—is anathema to the French insistence on assimilation. In other words, it’s not that Araud did not understand Noah’s joke or his argument. It’s that he really disagrees with it.
As with freedom of religion and freedom of speech, the different approaches to diversity result from different histories. Although Noah framed the debate strictly in terms of immigration, France’s insistence on the universality of French identity precedes the advent of mass immigration to the country, which occurred in waves prior to World War II and began in earnest thereafter. It is historically rooted in the challenge of forging a national identity and allegiance from a collection of disparate regions with diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. Before French identity was “imposed” on the children of African immigrants, it was imposed on the inhabitants of Brittany, the Basque country, Provence and Corsica, all of whom originally spoke languages other than French. This subsequently shaped the approach to integrating subsequent waves of immigrants from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Eastern Europe.
As with freedom of religion and freedom of speech, the different French and American approaches to diversity result from different histories.
Its application to the children of postwar immigration grew out of these historical precedents and was already operative as they grew up, embodied by an educational system and national discourse that shaped and formed them. What Noah and other detractors of France’s approach ignore is how, in a country where one is either French or not French, adding a hyphenated identity does not add—it subtracts. For an American, there is nothing more natural and anodyne than to ask someone whose family name or appearance suggests foreign lineage, “Where are you from?” In France, the question is a powerfully loaded one, experienced by many children of African descent as an implicit repudiation of their French-ness. The double bind they often complain about involves French society demanding they be French, while constantly reminding them
that they will never be truly and fully accepted as such.
At the same time, the wave of postwar immigration to France and the French response to it also grew out of a historical precedent, that of French colonialism in North and sub-Saharan Africa in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this context, the French insistence on assimilation takes on a more sinister and distasteful character, with lingering traces of colonialism’s racist discourse of bringing civilization to the supposedly uncultured natives. I was not surprised to see that American academics who applauded
Noah’s takedown of the French ambassador often came to the debate from the perspective of Africa and its experiences with France under colonialism. Those who defended the French approach
to national identity, by contrast, engaged with the issue through the lens of contemporary France and African immigrants’ experience there.
Critics correctly take Araud and France’s assimilationist approach to diversity to task for ignoring this colonial legacy or minimizing its enduring impact on how Africans are perceived in France. It is perhaps cynical to suggest that, had the French team failed to win the World Cup, more people in France would have agreed with Noah’s characterization of it as African. But sadly, the precedent exists: In 2010, at the tournament in South Africa, the team was excoriated for its miserable play and open rebellion against the coach. For several years thereafter, it became commonplace to hear veiled and often unveiled questioning of the team’s French-ness.
What is fascinating to an observer like myself, who is familiar—and comfortable—with both countries’ approaches to the historically charged phenomena of race and diversity, is the degree to which those arguing both sides of the issue assume there is a right or wrong answer to the questions it raises. Perhaps it is inevitable that two countries with claims to a universalist mission would be unable to acknowledge that historical and cultural context matter, and that no approach fits everywhere.
What is alarming is the way the dispute illustrates the difficulty that even people of good will have in inclusively defining national identity, at a time when identity is increasingly contested
by actors seeking to use it to divide. Both Noah and Araud explicitly sought to advance solidarity and mutual understanding, one by celebrating individual difference, the other by transcending it. But as is often the case when it comes to American and French approaches to common ideals, their arguments ended up falling on deaf ears.
Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column appears every Wednesday.