MONDAY VIEWPOINT : French portray Cantona as victim

By Gerard Marcout, deputy director of sport with the French television station Canal Plus
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The Independent Online
Once again Eric Cantona upsets and divides French football fans with a new thunderbolt from the other side of the Channel.

A few weeks ago Michele Alliot-Marie, the French Minister of Sport, who is supporting Jacques Chirac in his campaign for the presidency, instigated a new national campain. It was called "l'esprit sportif", the spirit of sportsmanship, and was supposed to promote good behaviour in an out of sports arenas.

Last Wednesday French footballers and their union launched "the spring of football", another campaign with the same goal. They all wore a special armband, "football is a fiesta", and the 20 goalkeepers involved in the First Division's 10 games read a formal declaration in every stadium, calling for respect and friendship on the pitch and in the stands. Only 23 yellow cards were shown that night, a record for the 1994-95 season.

Almost at the same time truth seemed to win in the bribery scandal concerning the game between Marseille and Valenciennes. Finally, the so far faithful and dedicated followers of Bernard Tapie decided to tell the judge the real and shameful story. It could lead to the tycoon and politician going to jail for six months.

All this was a welcome breath of fresh air, which was suddenly swept away by the astounding news from south London that Cantona was appealing against a sentence of two weeks' imprisonment by Mrs Jean Pearch for assaulting a so-called supporter.

"Absurd, incomprehensible, out of proportion." Aim Jacquet, the manager of the French national team who had not hesitated to name Cantona as captain, heavily supported his player. "I thought the punishment was severe enough."

Philippe Pait, the president of UNFP, the French players' union, was harsher. "It is really shocking to send someone to jail because he replied to an ex-convict. It is another proof of the English ostracism of the French who live there. We all remember the campaigns against Merle, the rugby player, and Gachot, the motor racing driver."

Jean-Jacques Amorfini, who manages to combine being the deputy president of UNFP and Cantona's agent, went further: "I don't think he will stay much longer over there," he said. Jean-Pierre Papin, who played alongside Cantona in the French national team, also backed "Eric le Rouge". He said that Matthew Simmons, the fan who abused Cantona, "should be banned for ever from every stadium."

When I asked Michel Platini, the best player in French history and president of the World Cup '98 organising committee, he replied with one word: "Disgraceful." He then added: "I share Aim Jacquet's opinion about this affair."

So the small world of French football seems ready to start a new 100 years war against England to save its lost son. Still, the French press has not been afraid to recall all the scandals and incidents which destroyed little by little - and maybe for good this time - the promising career of Eric Cantona.

And for all the outrage, there were other views expressed in the wake of Thursday's verdict. "As for the insults, the French player is not so bad himself," France Soir, the popular daily, said. Erik Bielderman wrote in L'Equipe, "But yesterday it was on behalf of the right-thinking that the judge decided [to send Cantona to jail]. Also on behalf of the uncompromising refusal of the English people to see the rebirth of hooliganism."

But perhaps the conclusion belongs to Nol le Graet, president of the French football league. "This judgement may seem severe. But today the demands and extreme media coverage of high level sport impose some duties on the players and managers. They must have exemplary behaviour and cannot consider themselves above rules and laws."

In France everybody is now waiting with real curiosity for Matthew Simmons' day of judgement. His serious verbal abuse may contribute more to shatter Cantona's dreams in Britain than any wild tackle from behind. It will be interesting to consider the attitude of British justice towards a hooligan just one year before the European Championship finals are staged in England.