Immigrants & the World Cup: Trevor Noah and the French Ambassador

Members of the French National Football Team Celebrate their Victory in the 2018 World Cup.

Many football fans from around the world commented on the diversity of several of the European teams competing in the World Cup. Writing for Bloomberg Opinion, Leonid Bershidsky noted:

Three of the four national teams in the World Cup semifinals — France, Belgium and England — are, one might think, icons of European diversity. Immigrants and sons of immigrants are overrepresented on these squads compared with the demographics of these countries as a whole…

France’s starting lineup in Tuesday’s semifinal against Belgium contained five players born overseas or to immigrant parents: Cameroonian-born Samuel Umtiti; N’Golo Kante, whose parents came from Mali; son of Guinean parents Paul Pogba; Kylian Mbappe, whose father is Cameroonian and mother Algerian; and Blaise Matuidi, son of an Angolan father and a Congolese mother. That’s 45 percent of the starting 11. Non-European Union immigrants and their children make up only 13.5 percent of France’s population, according to Eurostat.

Belgium’s starting 11 also had five players of immigrant background: Nacer Chadli, who started out playing for the Moroccan national team before he switched to Belgium; Marouane Fellaini, whose parents are also Moroccan; Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku, whose fathers are Congolese; and Mousa Dembele, whose father is from Mali. Belgium’s population of first- and second-generation non-EU immigrants is 12 percent.

England, too, has a greater proportion of players with non-European immigrant backgrounds — mostly Caribbean, as in the cases of Kyle Walker, Ashley Young, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard; Dele Alli’s father is Nigerian — than the U.K. has such residents. Their share is 14 percent of the overall U.K. population.

While many fans celebrated the diversity of the European football teams, for others, the number of players of immigrant-origin raised questions about immigration, belonging, and national identity. Some saw the participation of immigrants as a sign of openness, others, often quietly, saw the diversity as a sign that something was being lost. Mesut Özil, a player on the German national team who born in Germany to Turkish immigrant parents, famously resigned after what many viewed as racist treatment from fans and media commentators following a meeting with the Turkish President.  In an explanation for his decision to leave the national team, Özil wrote, “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.” His decision was hotly debated by other children of immigrants in Germany and the public at large. While some agreed with his decision to resign, others felt that it send the wrong message. 

Some politicians have highlighted Özil’s actions to support this own position. The Guardian reported:

Rightwing populists have pounced on the controversy around Özil… as proof that people with a Muslim background can never integrate into German society. Alice Weidel, co-leader of far-right Alternative für Deutschland, criticised the Arsenal midfielder as “a typical example of the failed integration of far too many immigrants from Turkish Muslim cultural circles”.

The success of the French national team served to boost pride and identity. In a country with a strong nationalist far-right movement, the victory was seen by many as a good news story for French unity. Others suggested that you shouldn’t read too much into the symbolism of the victory, and that divides fueled by xenophobia, religious prejudice, and cultural differences remain, In fact, after France won the World Cup, Trevor Noah, the South African-born television host of “The Daily Show” congratulated Africa for the world cup victory. It was a joke, but one with serious undertones.  Gérard Araud, the French Ambassador to the United States defended the French identity of the team’s players in a letter to Noah. The letter is embedded below:

Araud writes that too often people deny that people of African ancestry can be French. He argues that in celebrating the African heritage of many of the French players, Noah was denying their Frenchness.

Speaking to his audience, in between scenes on the set of The Daily Show, Noah reflected on the Ambassador’s critique. We have embedded it below. Please note that Noah uses language that some people consider offensive. Please preview the video before using it with students.

Reflection Questions and Teaching Suggestions

What issues are underneath the discussions about the diversity of European football teams? Consider using the iceberg diagram strategy to make the issues that are underneath the surface visible.

What does Özil want people to understand when he writes, “I am German when we win but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

After reading the Ambassador’s letter, and Noah’s response, do you find areas of agreement between the two? How where do they disagree? What is at stake in their disagreement?

While they are both democracies, the US and France have different models of national identity and accommodating diversity. Writing in Vox, Zack Beauchamp explains, “For a complex web of reasons — ranging from differences over the role of the state to the two revolutions’ differing experiences with religion — America developed a national culture centering on liberal tolerance, whereas revolutionary France focused more on building a shared sense of national identity and unified culture.” How do you see these two visions of national identity being expressed in the exchange between the Ambassador and Trevor Noah?

One way to explore the different perspectives expressed by Ambassador Araud and Trevor Noah is to use the Project Zero thinking routine circle of viewpoints. Follow the link for ideas on using it with students.

Engage the text. Both the letter and the Daily Show video are forms of text. Ask students to underline key phrases from the letter, and jot down words or phrases from Noah’s response. When they are finished, ask students to review the list and note the reasons they made those selections or you might collect student responses on a graffiti board with post its, or capture the responses in a word cloud.

Consider the significance of this exchange. What does it reveal about the challenges of integration? Two additional Project Zero thinking routines could serve to facilitate that reflection. One is connect-extend-challenge. Consider how the discussion connected to your understanding of the issues involved in immigration. How did it extend you thinking of those issues? In what ways, did it challenge what you know or think about immigration? The other is the Three Whys.

To learn more about France, diversity, and identity consider reading Facing History and Ourselves’ book What Do We Do with a Difference? France and The Debate Over Headscarves in Schools written by Dan Eshet.

For an exploration of France’s national football team and the politics of diversity. See the film Les Bleus une autre histoire de France. It is available on Netflix.