French history is a game of two halves
In the aftermath of the World Cup in Russia, how did a comedian’s joke acquire the status of a near diplomatic incident?
Trevor Noah has come under much criticism for suggesting, in jest, that France owes its victory in that tournament to Africa. This on account of the high number of players of African descent in the French team.
I’d certainly like an African team to win the World Cup one day. But I’m not, like Noah and others on social media, one to claim the black French players for our continent.
I believe that the players in question have an inalienable right to choose which country to pledge their loyalty to - in the same way so many other Africans embrace Europe to escape poverty and the ruinous rule of their despots.
I think, too, that the matter of what those who choose to join this purportedly colourless Frenchhood is one best left to the assimilated and their assimilators. Period.
For all we know, the likes of Pogba, Mbappe, Dembele and Umtiti might, in fact, take serious offence at being associated with, or being claimed by Africa, which in many European circles is still being seen as “the dark continent”.
The backdrop to this is that, historically, French colonialism sought to assimilate its colonial subjects - so that they would aspire to be included in a supposedly superior culture, identity and nationhood.
Which comes as no surprise that to this day so many French-speaking African countries are tethered to the French apron strings through the CFA franc.
So, why was the French US ambassador so irked by Noah’s joke?
Could it be that the esteemed diplomat understood very well that, indeed, many a true word has been spoken in jest?
Could it have reminded him and those of his ilk about France’s complicated, sometimes shameful, relationship with Africa and with its erstwhile colonies more specifically? In the warm afterglow of the historic French victory in Moscow, being reminded of this historical relationship would understandably have come as an unwelcome wet blanket.
For that history tells us that France - like Britain, Portugal, Spain and others - was indeed once a colonial force on the continent. It was a participant in the infamous Berlin Conference.
At that conference European powers agreed, like mob bosses divvying up drug territory, to claim much of Africa for themselves - riding roughshod over the wishes and rights of indigenous peoples.
That conference laid the ground for France to claim for itself large swathes of west and central Africa.
France was in the company of the Belgians (culpable in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba), the Italians (who tried and failed to colonise Ethiopia), the British (who betrayed black people in South Africa).
As well the Germans, who committed genocide in Namibia.
And with the loss of political independence came the looting of natural resources and cultural artefacts, which, in the latter’s case the French government has pledged to return.
In defence of his country, the French representative in the US waxed lyrical about his country’s multiculturalism and the deemed colourlessness of being French.
He complained that Noah’s assertion “even in jest, legitimises the ideology that claims whiteness as the only definition of being French” - adding that, “France does not refer to their citizens based on their race, religion or origin”.
But the truth remains that France owes the substantial presence of black people within its borders to colonialism - just as America has slavery to thank for its large African American population.
The French ambassador’s argument is problematic on two counts.
One is that, if it prevailed, it would have the effect of historically decoupling citizens of African descent from their African roots.
Flowing from that it would have the effect of erasing or concealing France’s complicity in colonialism - with all its shamefulness.
Even the protestation of France being a non-racial, religiously tolerant society would not be a basis to deny the existence of racism in France - which would be unique in all of Europe and much of the world in this day and age.
All said, those who took Noah to task, and who deny the pernicious effects of colonialism, may want to revisit the words of the poet and intellectual Aime Cesaire.
“No one”, he said, “colonises innocently (and) no one colonises with impunity either.”
* Mike Siluma is a journalist and host of Karibu on KayaFM 95.9