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Identity politics: what does it take to be French?

By Tarini Mehtani

The recent feud between late-night comedy show host Trevor Noah and the French ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud has shed light upon the divide between American and French identity politics.

On his late-night comedy show, host Trevor Noah joked that “Africa won the world cup” referring to the majority of team players being black and Gerard Araud did not take it lightly. He wrote to Noah and stated in his letter, “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.” Noah responded to that by saying that a person “can be both French and African at the same time.”

France and the United States are two countries which share a common goal of integrating immigrants and people of different ethnicities into their society. They are both debating over their national identity. However, they have different ways to achieve that goal. The French argue that the ‘French’ identity is superior to other identities of “race, religion or origin”. French colour-blindness says national identity trumps and supplants race and ancestry, deeming the latter two irrelevant.

This brings up a larger issue of hyphenated identity: how individuals see themselves as part of the collective. Identities in America are hyphenated whereas in France they are not. In America “you can be both, African and American”.

“When they are unemployed, when they may commit a crime or when they are considered unsavoury, it’s the African immigrants”, Noah argued. “When their children go on to provide a World Cup victory for France, we only refer to them as French.”

The French idea of nationalism dates back to the French revolution where people are united by the civic territory of France. French Identity comes first; you are first French, before you are anything else. France doesn’t believe in hyphenated identities. They claim to unite people by focusing on their similarities, of being French, rather than separating them by identifying their differences, of race, ethnicity or religion.

With the rise of immigration and globalisation, the definition of national identity is being challenged. Immigration is essentially testing and changing the nature of national identities. France and the United States are experiencing a surge of political debates where identity is being questioned and redefined.  

France’s universalism unites people by creating a common national culture and identity. French people are strongly united and compose a stable and firm society. Although uniting people based on their similarities is important and impactful,  it is imperative that we identify their roots and acknowledge their differences. The true idea of liberalism lies in tolerance and acceptance of diversity. In today’s multicultural world, we need to stop forcing similarities, grow out of the fear of differences, and embrace each other for what we are.


  1. Donadio, R. (2018). The French Don’t Understand American Identity Politics. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
  2.  Beydoun, K. (2018). Standing with Trevor Noah: a World Cup for France is a win for Africa too. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 12 Aug. 2018].
  3. Vox. (2018). Trevor Noah’s feud with France over race, identity, and Africa, explained. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Aug. 2018].
  4. YouTube. (2018). Trevor Responds to Criticism from the French Ambassador – Between The Scenes | The Daily Show. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Aug. 2018].

Tarini Mehtani, the author, is a second year student from Jindal School of Global Affairs.

Featured image source: The Korea Times


One response to “Identity politics: what does it take to be French?”

  1. Your article on CIDS – excellent.

    I would like to chat further for my own post-doctoral work in Delhi (July)

    Firoz Khan
    Professor – Stellenbosch University (RSA)


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