x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Eric Cantona: The King who could become France president?

The ex-Manchester United star is lining up a long-shot bid for the French presidency, but will is it a PR stunt?

Eric Cantona has written to 500 French mayors to get signatures needed to stand in April's presidential election.
Eric Cantona has written to 500 French mayors to get signatures needed to stand in April's presidential election.

PARIS // Footballer-turned-actor Eric Cantona is lining up a long-shot bid for the French presidency, with the ex-Manchester United star trying to gather enough political backing to topple Nicolas Sarkozy.

After failing in a recent quixotic bid to destroy global banking, the man known to English fans as King Eric has written to French mayors to get the 500 signatures needed to stand in April's election.

But Mr Cantona appears to be applying one of his legendary footballing feints on the political field, using the unlikely presidential run to secure his real aim — help for the poorly housed, on behalf of one of his favoured charities.

In his letter to city mayors, revealed by the daily Liberation, the 45-year-old said he is "a citizen very much aware of our times," which offer "limited opportunities" to the young and generate "violent" injustice.

He said he felt obliged to speak up "at a time when our country faces difficult choices" and that the current economic uncertainty gave him "a sense of my responsibility".

Getting the 500 mayors to sign up to his message on housing and poverty "would allow me to send a simple but clear message: a message of truth and respect," he said.

Mr Cantona, who has starred in adverts for such multinationals as L'Oreal and Nike, said he "chose the housing issue as it seems to me to be essential and concerns 10 million people".

"I had to act at a time when I was likely to be heard."

The presidential election will start in April, with a second round set for May. Centre-right President Sarkozy of the UMP party has been trailing Socialist rival Francois Hollande in opinion polls.

Mr Cantona played for Manchester United from 1992 to 1997 and was known for both his genius and ill-discipline, as well as his often colourful and incomprehensible remarks.

Late in 2010 he entered the political and economic fray, urging compatriots to withdraw cash en masse as a way to bring banking to its knees — although it emerged that his actress wife had appeared in a TV bank advert.

French and European politicians and bankers condemned Mr Cantona as irresponsible and misguided, and his call to action was not taken up.

Considered one of the greats of the game, Mr Cantona retired from professional football in 1997 and has since turned to acting, notably in director Ken Loach's Looking For Eric.

He is currently performing on tour in a stage production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu in Chains.

Finance Minister Francois Baroin said as a mayor he would not back the bid but preferred "the Cantona who looks after housing to the Cantona who told the French to withdraw their money from the banks in order to cause a disaster."

Benoist Apparu, the junior housing minister, disputed Cantona's figure of 10 million poorly housed people, telling BFM-TV there were only 3.5 million but admitting: "That's already a thousand times too many."

Patrick Doutreligne of the Abbe-Pierre Foundation for Housing for the Underprivileged, of which Cantona is a patron, told AFP the footballer did not actually expect nor want to be the next president of France.

"He will indeed seek 500 signatures, not for the election but so that housing is a priority. So that the mayors sign-up to the foundation's call for mobilisation, so that housing is the campaign's main theme," Mr Doutreligne said.

"You need a spur like Cantona to give housing the place it deserves in this campaign."

One of Mr Cantona's most-famous moments was when he launched a flying kung-fu kick and at a fan as he was walking off the pitch after being sent off during a 1995 match against Crystal Palace.

He famously told journalists later: "When the seagulls follow the trawler, it's because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."

Although revered in England, Mr Cantona did not achieve the same status as a footballer in France, where his appearances for the national side never resulted in glory.

French satirical television programme Les Guignols portrays Mr Cantona as a painter or poet struggling with the world's incomprehension of his talent.