In Depth

Eric Cantona sparks Euro 2016 race row over French squad

Former Man Utd legend is not alone in questioning the absence of North African Muslim players in Didier Deschamps's squad

France beat Cameroon 3-2 on Monday evening in a Euro 2016 warm-up, a victory that will provide Les Bleus with some much-needed positive publicity after a few days in which coach Didier Deschamps has been accused of picking his squad along racial lines.

The controversy began last week, when former France and Manchester United midfielder Eric Cantona used an interview with The Guardian to question the squad for the European Championships, noting it was light on players of North African Muslim heritage.

Singling out the omissions of "great players" Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa, Cantona said: "But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know. Like the Mormons in America."

He added that the players "they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that". 

Cantona's pointed comments come just months after the terror attacks in Paris and as Europe grapples with the threat from Islamic State and the refugee crisis sparked by the civil war in Syria.

Noel le Graet, the head of the French Football Federation, dismissed the remarks as "ridiculous" while Deschamps, who has not commented publicly, is poised to sue his former team-mate. Carlos Brusa, the coach's lawyer told French sports daily L'Equipe that the comments were " slanderous and defamatory" and that they questioned Deschamps's "integrity".

Cantona's comments have been treated with disdain by most of the French public and press, who point out that Deschamps's 23-man squad represents a healthy cross-section of French society, with the likes of Arsenal's Olivier Giroud and Tottenham's Hugo Lloris included alongside players such as Moussa Sissoko, N'Golo Kante and Paul Pogba.

The left-leaning paper Liberation commented: "If he's axed Benzema, it's by pragmatism" and nothing to do with his ethnicity nor for the sex-tape scandal of last year.

The centre-right Le Figaro also hit back, accusing Cantona of "anti-French racism", saying: "Cantona has established a distinction, among the French, between those who have non-European origins and those who don't... and in his eyes all those whose origins are [European] French are despicable."

Cantona was unrepentant, however, and in an interview with Journal du Dimanche, said: "In this period of division and unrest, I would have liked that all France, which I love so much, should be represented in the French team."

Nor is his voice is a lone one. His sentiments have been echoed by one of France's most popular comedians and actors, Jamel Debbouze, who, in an interview with France Football publication, said he couldn't understand how Benzema and Ben Arfa - who have scored 41 goals between them this season for Real Madrid and Nice respectively - could be overlooked.

"Benzema, and by extension, Hatem Ben Arfa, are paying for the social situation of France today," said Debbouze, who emerged from a tough, largely-immigrant suburb to find fame.

The omission of such players means that others from similarly deprived areas "will have no representation in the French team", he argued.

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