Thursday, June 14, 2007

Vote Lilian Thuram

When Nicholas Sarkozy claimed victory in the French presidential election many in France feared a repeat of the riots of November 2005 during which Sarkozy chose to brand the rioters 'racaille' - 'scum' in French. When he did he was immediately countered by one of the heroes of French youth all over that country. Lilian Thuram, born in Guadeloupe, raised in the Paris Banlieue, told Sarkozy, "If they are scum, then so am I."

Thuram is France's most-capped football player but displays none of the narcissism and ostentation associated with many millionaire players. In recent years he has vocally defended the disaffected migrant youths living in run-down estates across France. "It is true that I have achieved success as a footballer, but this is exceptional and very rare. Most of the kids in the suburbs have no way out and that is why they are violent. I do not excuse violence, but I understand it." This is typical of Thuram's observations on French life, as measured and as elegant in thought and word as he is in stride and tackle.

During last year's World Cup the leader of France's National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, complained that the national football team contained too many "players of colour." Thuram was quick to respond, denouncing Le Pen as ignorant and out-of-touch of the make-up of France. Le Pen went on to query whether, "the coach exaggerated the proportion of players of colour and should have been a bit more careful" and claimed the French people
"cannot recognise itself in the national side." Thuram spoke thoughtfully in response:

"What can I say about Monsieur Le Pen?"

"Clearly, he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn't know anything about French history or society.

"That's pretty serious. He's the type of person who'd turn on the television and see the American basketball team and wonder: 'Hold on, there are black people playing for America? What's going on?'

"When we take to the field, we do so as Frenchmen. All of us. When people were celebrating our win, they were celebrating us as Frenchmen, not black men or white men. It doesn't matter if we're black or not, because we're French. I've just got one thing to say to Jean Marie Le Pen. The French team are all very, very proud to be French. If he's got a problem with us, that's down to him but we are proud to represent this country. So Vive la France, but the true France. Not the France that he wants."

The press conference at which Thuram spoke then broke into applause. But Thuram went on to undo Le Pen further:

"Maybe we should invite Monsieur Le Pen to celebrate our next victory with us. Then he'd see that we are fiercely proud to be French and he might change his mind. Actually, he's got too much to lose by changing his mind, hasn't he?"

It is clear Thuram feels his upbringing and his responsibility to the children living as he once did keenly. In a recent interview he remarked that, "although I am glad to be French, who can say that I would not be a rioter too if I was not a footballer? I have lived like these kids. I know what the French police are like - how they try to humiliate you because of your race. Sarkozy is afraid of the police and of their right-wing supporters and so he blames the victims, the immigrant youth, for all of this violence. Who remembers now the kids killed by the police?" Days before the Presidential Elections began he told a BBC interviewer that, "Sarkozy has normalised the discourse of Jean Marie le Pen and French society today is now more racist than before."

It's easy for some people to jeer at David Beckham when he falters and stumbles in interviews. But no one should expect footballers to be gifted orators. None the less, in a business which now has many repugnant elements to it, from bungs and agents to training ground assaults and stories of young women taken advantage of, Thuram cuts an impressive figure, if simply because he stands out. He is an advisor to the Haut Conseil d'Integration, a think tank that reports directly to the government on race issues. He is said to take the role seriously, refusing to be the token black and unafraid of criticising prevailing policy.

At present he plays for Barcelona in Spain and at 35 is almost certainly in the twilight of his career. He has spoken of an interest in a life in politics after football, but also, and just as earnestly, a career in teaching. I'd like to see him in politics and perhaps in years to come as French President. There are some in France who deride him as an agitator with a far-left agenda, but in reality he speaks for unity and dismisses the concerns of left and right. I hope he continues to speak up for what he believes and avoids being used for anyone's political ends. Vive Thuram.


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