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In France there are objections to Aya Nakamura singing at the Olympics

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

France is hosting the Olympics this summer, so it is natural that the opening ceremony will include the performance of a French singer. And that leaves one question - why do some French politicians object? NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DJADJA")

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AYA NAKAMURA: (Singing in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Aya Nakamura's hit "Djadja" still plays everywhere in France. Since the song's release in 2018, it's been streamed a billion times. The singer was born in the West African nation of Mali but grew up in the Paris suburbs, and she is France's top-selling artist worldwide - its biggest star since Edith Piaf. Olivier Cachin is a music critic.

OLIVIER CACHIN: Aya Nakamura's music is like R&B with Afro flavor, with zouk or Afrobeat rhythms. She's singing, you know, all about life, about love stories. I mean, it's really pop music at its best.

BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron is reported to have asked Nakamura to perform at the Olympic Games' opening ceremony after she told him she was a fan of Edith Piaf. It didn't take long for the far right to pounce on the news. Politician Marion Marechal-Le Pen is the granddaughter of the founder of France's far-right party and the niece of its current leader. Marechal herself belongs to an even more extremist movement. She spoke in an interview on Europe 1 radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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MARION MARECHAL-LE PEN: (Through interpreter) The French don't want to be represented in the eyes of the world by a singer whose style is influenced by the hood and Africa. This is a political move by Emmanuel Macron, who wants to tell the world that the face of France is multicultural, and we're no longer a nation with Christian roots and European culture.

BEARDSLEY: France has one of Europe's most multicultural societies, but not when it comes to who speaks for the country, says writer and filmmaker Rokhaya Diallo.

ROKHAYA DIALLO: The polemic is about who gets to be the face of France. It's not the first time that we've seen people of color being appointed or being chosen to represent France or to impersonate France and being targeted by racist backlash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POOKIE")

NAKAMURA: (Singing in non-English language).

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BEARDSLEY: Nakamura's songs pulsate with female power and sexuality. Her slang-spiced lyrics are a mix of French, Arabic, English, and West African languages. It's not a musical cocktail to everyone's liking. Another far-right politician called her lyrics a form of linguistic Great Replacement, referring to the conspiracy theory that people of color are being used to replace white populations. Cachin calls the debate over Nakamura's lyrics reactionary.

CACHIN: Everybody knows that language is something that evolves. Words evolve - the accents, the expressions - everything evolves. And just because they don't understand some of the catchphrase that she has, they say that, well, it's not French. But it's them who should take a lesson of French - I mean of today's French, not of Middle Ages French.

BEARDSLEY: Nakamura does have plenty of supporters. French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said the choice to have her sing at the Olympics shows audacity and panache. And Sophie Binet, the first woman to lead France's largest trade union, told BFMTV her songs energize their protest marches.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SOPHIE BINET: (Through interpreter) She incarnates France's diversity. Despite what the far right says, France has always been richer for its immigration. There'd be no Marie Curie without immigration.

BEARDSLEY: Nakamura has not spoken about the controversy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOGGY")

BEARDSLEY: Instead, she hit back in song. I don't have to prove myself, she sings. I don't have enemies. I'm on the cover of magazines.

The Paris prosecutor is taking things more seriously, opening an investigation into some of the online commentary for possible hate speech. Like Edith Piaf, Nakamura grew up in a poor neighborhood with an immigrant background. Ironically, says Cachin, her critics would have certainly hated Piaf, too.

CACHIN: All of these extreme rightists would have been the same in the 50s. They would have said that Piaf was singing about prostitutes and alcohol. But the truth of the matter is, like Edith Piaf in her time, Aya Nakamura is the France of today - of 2024.

BEARDSLEY: Cachin says Nakamura channeling Piaf is a perfect way to represent France at the Olympic Games' opening ceremony.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HYMNE A L'AMOUR")

EDITH PIAF: (Singing in French).

BEARDSLEY: Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.