When I first saw the memes on my Twitter feed, I smiled. Not only had France won the 2018 World Cup, but most of the African continent shared their joy and made this amazing sporting feat a little bit theirs as well. As a citizen of both Madagascar and France, this was my “having my cake and eating it too” moment. The final match was stressful, as the Croatian team was dominating, but when the final whistle blew, I was overjoyed that this young team of hard-working players had been rewarded with the ultimate prize.
I indulged in the celebration and tried to stay in the moment because I knew very well what would come next. Fifteen out of the 23 players on France's winning team have personal histories tied to the continent of Africa. But I did not think the controversy would come so quickly.
The issue seemed trivial at first, but it turned into an internet meme shared thousands of times worldwide. It went something like this:
France has won the World Cup and its victory is also Africa's.
Many pieces have been written about this assertion, so first let's get the obvious out of the way.
This is a victory for France: all the players were born in France and have expressed repeatedly their love and pride for France. This is unequivocal. It feels silly to have to state this over again, but given the trend of public discourse in certain spaces, it feels necessary to do so (as did former US president Obama).
As with most memes, this was most often shared in the good fun, as Trevor Noah did. But at the same time, he underlined a notion that France struggles to deal with—that diversity is a strength and one that comes from generations of immigrants with origins in France's former colonies. Like any good joke, Noah's subtly addressed some uneasy truths about France. And after that, France didn't find the joke funny anymore.
Africanness versus Frenchness
Prior to the final match, French far-right forums were loaded with opinion pieces arguing that they felt more loyalty to their true European brothers from Croatia than the current French team. After the final, an arguably less alarming viewpoint came from another unhappy camper, France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, who wrote a letter to Trevor Noah whitesplaining what it means to be black in France:
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. 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.
The statement “you are denying their Frenchness” deserves closer examination. Kylian Mbappé, the teenage prodigy who spearheaded France's clinical attack with four goals at the World Cup, unpacks his African identity with a maturity beyond his years:
C’est une thématique qui me tient à cœur. Même si je suis français, j’ai des origines africaines, et pour moi aider le sport africain à se développer c’est quelque chose qui me tient à cœur. Si je peux aider à travers ma notoriété et même autre chose, je le ferai avec plaisir.
This is a theme that is close to my heart. While I am French, I do have African origins, and for me to help African sport develop is something that is close to my heart. If I can help with my notoriety and or other things, I will do it with pleasure.
Didier Deschamps, the French team coach who was instrumental in molding his talented players into a cohesive unit stated the following about the team's relationship with Africa:
It has always been the case that the French team has always had players from Africa and from other countries and territories, and not just in football but in other sports, They are all French and they are all proud to be French. But through their origins, through their childhood, they have friends, they have families in these countries so they have a certain attachment to these countries and a certain pride that these people will see them play in a World Cup Final.
It is astonishing that in 2018 someone like the Ambassador Araud could deny the possibility of a person's having more than one identity, or consider Frenchness and Africanness as antagonistic. Noah was not, of course, denying the players’ Frenchness, he was stating they could be both. I am afraid to ask if Araud would have also written a similar letter if the players had had ties with Spain?
1998 all over again, and not in a good way
I understand Araud's concerns. Judging from the discourse from some right-wingers in France, rising fascist sentiment would dismiss this historic win on the basis that the players are not “French enough“. The view that the French team was less European and therefore less worthy of praise was also expressed by editorialists in Italy and Spain. And the German footballer Mehmet Ozil recently left the German national team because of racist comments about his Turkish origin. So I understand the concern but Araud should know by now that you don't stop the rise of fascism by trying to rationalize their less repulsive talking points.
History has also taught us that a French World Cup triumph does nothing to push back racism. Not long after the euphoria that followed the previous victory in 1998, France was rocked by Jean-Marie Le Pen‘s defeat of favorite—and former prime minister—Lionel Jospin to reach the second round of the 2002 presidential elections. The same Le Pen who declared:
[The] national team was too dark and did not represent France.
Twenty years after that sobering election, Le Pen's daughter Marine made it to the second round of the 2017 presidential elections, losing to Emmanuel Macron.
Macron has embraced the national team, adopting celebratory moves from urban youth and hailing the team as a unifier of the French Republic, a country in which everyone is French regardless of color, ethnicity or cultural background. Yet within this very policy lies the reason for France's seemingly unavoidable racial tensions. In trying to look past cultural and ethnic differences, the French Republic has not only failed to acknowledge its obvious diversity but more importantly, it swept under the rug the very source of that diversity—the country's colonial past.
France's history in Africa
Sooner or later, we will have to reckon with the fact that while the French football team may be ethnically and culturally diverse, France's political elite is not. France does not keep statistics on minority participation in the workforce but it is painfully obvious that black representation in the French public sphere and in politics is rare.
Maybe this second World Cup triumph is a chance for a do-over, for France to have a frank conversation about the origins of the country's diversity and what that means.
— Paul Pogba (@paulpogba) July 20, 2018
The atmosphere ⭐⭐ current mood @telefoot_TF1 #frenchteam #Proudtobefrench #worldcup2018
From the early 1900's to around 1960, France held sway over its colonies in West Africa and Madagascar, but the colonial period has long been a controversial topic. Crimes perpetrated in Algeria, Madagascar and Rwanda, for instance, are still not acknowledged as such. This lack of remorse prevents the nation from fully embracing its diversity, and is inextricably linked to current racial tensions and the lack of diversity in the spheres where it really matters.
An honest debate on race and colonial errors in Africa may be difficult to have, but it needs to happen for the country to achieve some degree of closure. Were France to own up to its past mistakes, it would have an easier time embracing its present, a present composed of a talented, young and diverse population, like its football team.
Instead, the republic's representative chooses to argue with comedians about the composition of a football team. Ambassador Araud is a prisoner of a certain perception of what a unified France ought to look like, a perception that fails to see Africanness and Frenchness as inextricably linked. The thousands of African soldiers who died for the liberation of France in 1916 and in 1944 can attest to this.
Maybe a third World Cup triumph will do the trick. Maybe after winning in 2022 France will finally get the joke and join in. Then the world will know it has made the necessary strides toward a more just and unified society.