Leading Article: The making of Eric the Martyr

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The Independent Online
Where is Albert Camus now, when his soccer-playing fan needs him? The famous goalkeeping existentialist would have reminded the acolyte that, since the whole of life is absurd, an absurd court sentence makes sense. And the sentence handed out to Eric Cantona yesterday was absurd.

Consider the facts: Cantona was severely provoked, it was his first offence, his victim escaped practically unscathed, he has no previous convictions and has expressed contrition. In such circumstances only a Judge Jeffries would impose a custodial sentence. Yet that is what happened. Why?

Well, the magistrates did have a problem. What sentence do you impose on the man who has everything? A fine of much under a hundred grand would have been peanuts to a superstar. Community service would be inappropriate - imagine the nonagenarian, told that her kitchen is to be cleaned by Eric, his agent and 30 photographers?

In the end, what decided the bench was the desire to make an example of Cantona. "You are a high-profile public figure," intoned the magistrate, "... looked up to by many young people. For this reason, the only sentence appropriate is two weeks' imprisonment." Nothing could be clearer. And it is one function of a sentence that it should be exemplary. It may not seem fair, but it is valid.

There are some major objections, though, the first of which is a suspicion of class bias. Would that other role-model Richard Branson (were he to flip his lid and karate- kick someone from British Airways) have been sent down? One suspects not. He would have apologised, smiled toothily, paid his fine and walked free. And all because his imitators probably do not (in the eyes of magistrates) stand in such need of punitive example as do Cantona's. Cantona was sent to the slammer not because he was famous, but because he was a famous footballer. His example was intended for the great unwashed of the stadia, not wannabe entrepreneurs.

But the real objection to Cantona's sentence is that it will have the opposite effect from that intended. Already Eric's sponsor, Nike, advertises its sportswear using his bad-boy image. Children and adolescents of all classes are appealed to on the basis of Eric The Misunderstood, the Anti- Lineker, the unshaven, tough, sad hero. Now they have Eric en prison. One can almost hear the orgasmic squeals of ad agencies as they plan the next campaign: Eric the Martyr, eyes soulfully to camera, shadows of bars on his face, "mah life wiz ze screws".

No, parents of football-mad children will have groaned yesterday. Apart from the prospect of yet another expensive away strip for Man United (in cream, with small grey arrows), they must have shuddered at the thought of how Eric's incarceration will glamorise prison in the eyes of their offspring. What an example to set! Let us hope the Appeal Court has better sense.