Why many French misinterprete Trevor Noah's joke about the French "soccer" team

For comedian Trevor Noah, "context is everything". That's right, and that's also why his joke about Africa having won the football worldcup is understandable in the American context, but much less so in the French context. As a Noah fan and as a French, here is my friendly letter to Trevor Noah explaining why many of my French countrymates misinterpreted his jest.

Dear Trevor Noah,


I write to you as a Fan of yours and as a French citizen with the hope to explain why numerous of my countrymates have misinterpreted your joke about the French national “soccer” team, and why many are likely to also react after your response to the French Ambassador in the US.

 

As you tell in your eloquent conclusion: “context is everything”! There is a context behind the reaction from the French ambassador to your joke (and behind a number of reactions I assume you have received), which he has unfortunately left out of his letter, and which may help diffuse some of the tension that is building around this situation. As often, tension arises from some degree of mutual misunderstanding.

 

Before diving into the contexts underlying the mutual misunderstanding between your discourse and that of many French citizens, I want to make clear that my letter is merely an attempt to diffuse tension. I do not write to you in order to defend the French ambassador’s comment on your joke. I am neither a supporter of the current French government, nor do I believe that jokes are a matter of international diplomacy, but rather, that by definition they should not be taken too seriously. I only wish to explain the French cultural context which probably prompted the ambassador to write to you, with the hope that my explanations will promote mutual understanding.

 

France and the United States, seen from far, are very comparable nations. They both became republican (in the sense of having constitutional, democratic institutions, not referring to the right wing) nation-states by successfully revolting against an oppressive monarchy in the late 18th century. They then both proclaimed equality of all men, at least in theory (and forgetting about women...). Both have a History of territorial expansion, of slavery, of colonialism and of immigration, including of a tension between rejection, acceptance and integration [for a well summarized comparison in English, I recommend reading this interesting scholarly article].

 

These cultural, ethno-racial and historical considerations bear a great weight on the possible interpretations of your joke, and on your reply to the French ambassador. Given the apparent similarities between the US and France, one might have expected that no misunderstanding would arise as to what you or the French ambassador meant. However, a close look at how France and the US see cultural and racial differences in the context of their definitions of national identity reveals why you and the French ambassador each believe that the other is somehow wrong.

 

I must confess that, before calmly thinking about it, I first felt offended by your discourse and thought that you were plain wrong when saying that one can be at the same time French and African. It seemed as if you were claiming that the shared citizenship of a nation could be placed on the same level as a fraction of an individual's personal history: his geographical origin. This idea is indeed shocking in the context of how France defines its national identity (meant here as the shared characteristics giving access to full civic rights), as compared to the American context. All the historical reasons are well summarized in the article linked above so to make a long story short I would say this:

 

Citizenship in France is theoretically independent of any consideration of individual history or individual identity (e.g. culture, perceived ethnicity or race…) other than the sole will to be part of the collective effort called the French nation. In France, unlike in the US or a number of other states, there is clear line drawn between what is considered public matters, and private matters. For example, when Al Gore’s movie “an inconvenient truth” was shown in France, many French were shocked by the fact that part of the movie is dedicated to Al Gore’s personal history as a son of a rancher. In a debate of public matter such as climate change, Al Gore’s biographical anecdotes seemed as out of place to the French as frog legs and snails may seem on the menu of an American fast-food “restaurant”.

 

The individual African family history of some of the French “soccer” players seem to numerous French on a completely different level compared with their being French. Only the latter is actually considered a public rather private matter. Due to a different historical, cultural and anthropological context between the US and France, it is truly shocking to tenants of the French republicanism (again, not meant as the right wing) when you say that in America you can be both American and Irish, or Afro-American, because one is a personal identity, while the other relates to a national identity that has collective implications such as the right to vote. In France, there are no Afro-French or Irish-French (other than in the mouth of persons who seek to discriminate others negatively) because it is considered that one should not mix personal identity that is a private matter, with national identity that is a public matter.

 

The very sharp separation between personal identity and national identity in France is rooted in the specific historical way French in-fighting took place between progressive democratic forces claiming equal rights for everyone partaking in the nation and the conservatives seeking to (re)introduce hierarchies based on culture, "race" or ethnicity. French citizens often keep what is seen as their private identity away from the public political debate in order to prevent this private identity to become ground for discrimination. This is the historical way in which France has tried to be successful in fighting discriminations. It is clearly different from the American way but this French way has not worked significantly worse than its trans-Atlantic cousin.

 

It is clear to me, and I hope to many of my countrymates, that you meant nothing else but to promote unity and equality in your response to the French ambassador. However, due to the French context, your words can be, and have been, misinterpreted as fueling political causes that seek to undermine equality in favor of social, cultural and racial hierarchies. Even if some conservatives know that this is not what you meant, History also shows that tenants of regressive ideas are not famous for arguing in good faith and that they will use anything to fuel the spreading of their toxic views. This might explain why the French Ambassador and others felt compelled to react, even though they missed the point. I do not seek any apology, any response, any amendment of your discourse, or any self-censorship. You told what you considered as right and you had ground and legitimacy to do so. I just hope that my clarification of what your words mean in a French context; compared to the American context in which they were pronounced, can help you unearth the roots of this misunderstanding. Do not change your comedian art one bit, you are doing great!

 

Sincerely

Sacha Escamez,

Publicly, a French (and only French) citizen,

Privately, I am the son of a leftist Spanish immigrant who came to then France (nowadays Algeria) as a political refugee fleeing the far-right Spanish dictatorship, I have diverse cultural roots, I am in a couple with a “wunderbar” German woman, both living in Sweden where we watch a great deal of American late-night shows.

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