During his long career as a calm midfielder and central defender for France and a string of big European clubs, Laurent Blanc was known as "le president". He was regarded as a different kind of footballer: cool, aloof, intelligent, almost aristocratic, despite his blue-collar communist roots in the rural south of France.
In his brief career with Manchester United, he was known to the Old Trafford faithful as "Larry White". The French son of a hard-left trade union official came to sound – and almost to look – like a very proper kind of Englishman.
Since he took over last year as coach of a scandal-ravaged national team, Blanc has been hailed as France's saviour. Here at last was a man to restore discipline to Les Bleus and expunge the memories of Thierry Henry's sneaky hand-ball against the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs, the allegations that France players frequented with an under-age prostitute; and the mutiny and woeful performances of the squad during the World Cup last summer.
On Monday, Blanc's distinguished career, and gentlemanly reputation, may be brought crashing down. An investigation ordered by the French sports minister, and ex-judo champion, Chantal Jouanno, will report back on allegations that Blanc, and other senior officials in the French Football Federation, discussed last November the possibility of imposing a secret racial "quota" on training academies for boys aged 11 to 16.
Blanc at first waved away the accusations, made by the French investigative website Mediapart. He knew nothing of racial quotas, he said. His only concern was that some boys of foreign origin were using French national training facilities and then choosing to represent other countries.
The site then published a verbatim account of comments made by Blanc and other France officials at a youth strategy meeting in Paris on 8 November. Blanc told the meeting, among other things: "You have the feeling that we are producing really only one prototype of player: big, strong, fast... and who are the big, strong, fast players? The blacks. That's the way it is. That's the way things are today.
"I think we need to refocus, above all for boys of 13-14, 12-13, introduce other parameters, adjusted to our own culture.... The Spanish say to me: 'We don't have this problem. We don't have any blacks.'"
In other words, France is no longer producing enough skilful, intelligent, slightly built players – a French Lionel Messi or Andres Iniesta or even a new David Ginola. This is caused partly, Blanc argued, by an obsession at junior level with power and speed, which favoured one type of player, most of whom happened to be black.
Blanc went on to make it clear – in a less quoted passage – that he was talking about football qualities, rather than race. He did not mind if the whole France team was black, so long as there was a balance of big and small, strong and skilful players.
Blanc has since apologised if his words – "taken out of context" and "spoken in the heat of an argument" – were offensive. Many friends and former team-mates, white and black, have spoken up to insist that "Larry White" is a man of left-wing, humanist principles and not a racist.
He has always had good relations with black team-mates, they say. He was part of the "brown, white, black" France team who were hailed as a model for racial integration when they won the World Cup in 1998. As a successful coach of Bordeaux until last year, he nurtured many young black players, including the present France captain, Alou Diarra, 29, born in Mali and brought up in a poor multi-racial suburb east of Paris. Diarra is one of those who have spoken up in Blanc's defence.
There are, however, more and more voices, including senior black players past and present, calling for Blanc to be fired. The latest, yesterday, was Patrick Vieira, the Manchester City midfielder and Blanc's team-mate in the great 1998 France side.
"I know Laurent Blanc and I don't think he is racist," Vieira said. "But I don't understand how any of the officials present at that meeting can stay in their job. If these people stay, the door is open to all kinds of discriminations."
Lilian Thuram, another member of the 1998 France team has been campaigning for several days to have his former team-mate fired. Blanc is guilty, according to Thuram, of at least "unconscious racism" and promoting "racial stereotypes".
Blanc will be interviewed today by the independent investigators appointed by Jouanno. They will report back to the sports minister on Monday. There is a growing feeling that even if the French Football Federation does not show Blanc a red card, he might decide to resign.
His friend, Christophe Dugarry, another 1998 squad member, said: "I am very worried that Laurent Blanc is going to walk... I am worried that he is sick of being bashed around in this very unfair way."
A year before a French presidential election, the debate has become deeply political. In the context of a hard-right anti-immigrant drift by President Nicolas Sarkozy, Blanc's words – whatever he really meant – are inevitably explosive. Left-wing politicians are berating Blanc. Hard right politicians – probably to his disgust – are defending him.
The suggestion that there are too many black players in the France team was first raised by the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in 1998. It is an argument that is heard depressingly often in France – usually from young, well-off white people who do not like football much in any case.
The issue is potent well beyond the borders of France because it intrudes into a politico-racial no-go zone. Is it ever permissible to say that different races, which are defined partly by physical differences, have varying physical qualities and characteristics?
Thuram, a thoughtful man of French West Indian origin, and a skilful, intelligent and powerful defender in his day, says that such talk is a prelude to racism, even if it is "unconscious racism". To say that black people are stronger and run faster than whites, he says, opens the door to the argument that white people are more intelligent than blacks.
But how is it that almost all the world's top sprinters, and many of the world's top basketball players, are black? Is that just a question of social conditioning? Hamid is a 40-something youth worker of North African origin in the Paris suburbs, not far from where the France captain Diarra grew up. He also works with schoolboy football teams.
"I, God forbid, am not a racist. I don't think Blanc is a racist. But there is a problem," he says. "Everyone in youth football knows there is a problem. Black boys of 11 and 12, many of them, not all of them, are more physically mature, stronger and faster than other boys of their age, both whites and kids of Arab origin."
"If they all play on the same teams, the white kids and Arab kids can get flattened, or in any case, rapidly discouraged. There are many ways of dealing with that but for several years now in France there seems to have been a prejudice towards power and speed which has helped the black kids and discouraged the other kids."
This was, in effect, the issue that lay beneath the coded argument that raged in the private discussion at FFF headquarters on 8 November. In theory the officials, including Blanc, were addressing the problem of talented boys who joined national training academies and then chose to play for an African or north African country.
But it rapidly becomes clear from the transcript that the real problem worrying Blanc and others was that French national, and professional club, academies were becoming dominated by athletic, tall players who are mostly black. The meeting – with several dissenting voices but not Blanc – agreed that there should be an unofficial, unspoken "30 per cent" quota for boys of "double-nationality" at all national youth trials.
The conversation was secretly recorded by Mohamed Belkacemi, national technical adviser for football in poor, multi-racial suburbs. He said this week that he smuggled a recorder into the meeting because he had been shocked by similar discussions at other recent FFF gatherings. Belkacemi gave the tape to senior officials at the FFF last year. He insists that someone else leaked a transcript to Mediapart (possibly as part of one of the endless power struggles within the Federation).
Belkacemi and several other FFF officials believe that the "dual national" argument was merely a transparent cover for a racial quota. It appears never to have been implemented.
Hamid, the youth worker in the Paris banlieues, told The Independent: "There is a genuine problem but this was a stupid idea that could never have worked. All they need to do is to follow their own guidelines, which put skill as the first criteria for national selection at all levels and place strength lower down.... The same policy needs to be enforced at all levels of the game, to stop skilful 11 and 12 year olds – black, brown and white – from being discouraged. You don't seem to have the same problem in Britain and we have not always had the same problem here.
"Take players like Thierry Henry or Patrice Evra, who also came through boys' clubs in the Paris area. No one would say that they made it just because they were big or powerful."
Blanc's concerns seem to have been driven by football issues, not racial ones. His first mistake was to agree to try to address the problem with a de facto racial quota that dared not speak its name. His second mistake was to lie about it when the first Mediapart story appeared.
Le President was a great player. He is – or was – emerging as a great manager or coach. It seems that he is no politician.
Team that united a nation
Laurent Blanc was suspended for the 1998 World Cup final, but his team-mates did France proud and were heralded as an example of how France could embrace multiculturalism. Here is where the winning XI were born:
Fabien Barthez Born in Lavelanet, France
Lilian Thuram Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe
Bixente Lizarazu Biarritz, France
Marcel Desailly Accra, Ghana
Frank Leboeuf Bouches-du-Rhône, France
Didier Deschamps Bayonne, France
Emmanuel Petit Dieppe, France
Christian Karembeu Lifou, New Caledonia, South Pacific Islands
Zinedine Zidane Marseilles, France, of Algerian parents
Youri Djorkaeff Lyons, France, of Polish and Armenian parents
Stephane Guivarc'h Concarneau, FranceReuse content