Paris: Karim Benzema faced a growing backlash on Thursday, a day after his sensational claims that coach Didier Deschamps had “bowed to pressure from a racist part of France” by keeping him out of the Euro 2016 squad.
Political and sporting figures lined up to condemn the Real Madrid striker, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying he was “shocked” by Benzema’s outburst in Spanish media.
Benzema, 28, was charged earlier this year with complicity in an attempt to blackmail France team-mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sextape.
It is widely believed that it is that affair — rather than his Algerian origins — that saw him excluded from the squad ahead of the competition that starts on June 10 on home soil.
“In this magnificent and popular sport you need commitment, teamwork and pride in the blue shirt,” said Valls in pointed comments to be published on Friday by regional French newspapers.
“Bitterness, criticism, scandals have no place and no meaning at this time. Everyone needs to get behind ‘les Bleus’.”
Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, who is of Moroccan origin, said racism did still exist in France but said Benzema was wrong to resort to such accusations.
“Racism is a good excuse,” she said.
“But when one wears the France jersey, there is a duty to act in an exemplary fashion,” she added, alluding to the damaging accusations against Benzema.
The racism debate was sparked when France legend Eric Cantona questioned the motives for excluding Benzema and fellow forward Hatem Ben Arfa, whose father was a Tunisian international.
Former France international defender Lilian Thuram, a 1998 World Cup winner alongside Deschamps, said the reason Benzema was dropped was clear.
“If he’s not selected, it’s because of the Mathieu Valbuena affair,” Thuram told France Info radio.
“Racism exists in French society, Benzema could have done a lot, it would have been extraordinary for him to be captain of the France team, but he would have had to be irreproachable,” said Thuram, from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, who heads a foundation for education against racism.
Deschamps, currently at a training camp with Les Bleus in Austria ahead of Euro 2016, refused to comment on the sensitive subject.
“I don’t have a reaction,” he told AFP. “I don’t want to get into this debate, I’m not here for that. I’m focused on the competition and what’s ahead of us.”
– Cantona insists -Mourad Boudjellal, president of Toulon rugby club, said he believed Benzema’s words were dangerous because they could play into the hands of extremists.
“For young people from sensitive urban areas who are lacking role models, it becomes a great example to some recruiters, to tell them: ‘Look, even if you become the best in your sport, like football, look at Benzema, you’re rejected’,” said Boudjellal.
Cantona weighed into the debate again in an interview published on the Liberation newspaper website on Wednesday night.
The former Manchester United star said last year’s Paris terror attacks meant that “the north African community is viewed differently” and that French society is “punishing an entire community”.
When France won the World Cup in 1998 it was hailed as a major step for recognising the country’s multi-cultural roots.
But the government has acknowledged that many immigrant communities are ghettoised and neglected by the state, while the spread of jihadist ideology and the rise of the far-right National Front have forced questions of race and national identity at the forefront of political debate.