Soccer Legend Eric Cantona’s New Goal? The French Presidency

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Nigel Roddis / Reuters

New York Cosmo's Director of Soccer Eric Cantona (L) speaks to Manchester United's coach Alex Ferguson during Paul Scholes' testimonial soccer match in Manchester, northern England, August 5, 2011.

During his varied and fruitful life, Frenchman Eric Cantona has been a soccer hero, ad man, philosopherkung-fu enthusiastactor and musician, living legend, and even a king. Were that not enough, the 45 year-old Cantona is now giving signs he wants to become president of France—or at the very least run for the job in elections in April and May. But true to the wily former Manchester United striker’s form, the Elysée bid turns out to be a head-fake Cantona is using on behalf of a civic cause he considers far more important than politics: improving the condition of the poor and ill-lodged.  And as usual, much of France is looking on and cheering Cantona with approval.

Early reports went with Cantona’s initial presidential feint in earnest, unaware he was already shifting course for his real goal of calling the attention to the France’s serious affordable housing shortage for lower-income people. In joining anti-poverty campaigners in launching his presidential bid, Cantona is seeking to mobilize the French public—and veritable candidates in the election—to do something about “the millions of families whose daily suffering we forget, and from whom public authorities have grown distant.” In other words, Cantona may not be swapping his kingly title for one of president—but he is taking a tiny step closer to saintly status in French public opinion by taking up the defense of the growing ranks of ill-lodged or homeless people in France.

French daily Libération ran with a letter Cantona sent to France’s mayors seeking at least 500 signatures of official support required for presidential candidates to secure a slot on presidential ballots. Echoing the initial Libération scoop, many reports accurately noted Cantona appeared to have betrayed genuine presidential ambitions in seeking the backing of mayors, and quoted his letter to them explaining he’s an “engaged citizen,” motivated by his “keen sense of responsibility at a time when our country faces difficult choices that will be decisive for its future.”

But, as the lead Libération story and interview Tuesday details, Cantona’s presidential fast break isn’t gunning for the goal of becoming the head of state. Instead the paper calls it “a real-fake candidacy aiming only to revive the ‘general mobilization for housing’ campaign launched in September” by three leading charities—including the organization founded by and named after France’s late anti-poverty hero, Abbé Pierre. Cantona’s “presidential” website, www.ericanton.fr, takes visitors to another site featuring a petition calling on real aspirants for the Elysée to make solving France’s chronic and growing shortage of affordable, decent housing for people of all income levels a serious and central platform in their campaigns. The objective of Cantona and the organizations he’s working with is to collect a minimum of 100,000 signatures from French citizens insisting that the housing problem be cited as a priority issue by all main candidates.

That sort of call to action and the urgency behind it unfortunately isn’t new. Not only did Abbé Pierre’s legendary appeal during the bitterly cold winter of 1954 first call attention to the problem, but a campaign orchestrated around surging homelessness in 2006 actually pushed the government of then-President Jacques Chirac to pass a law making housing a guaranteed right of people. That entitlement has been an inapplicable dead letter since, given the time and costs that brake new housing construction, and the seller’s market that continues pushing rents ever higher even for small, ill-maintained lodging. How does one insist on the right to housing when doors to it simply won’t open—or don’t yet exist?

And despite Cantona’s enduring popularity in France, it’s far from certain his feinted foray into French political campaigning will prove as effective as his thrusts into rival penalty areas. His is not the first celebrity pitch invasion of French presidential campaigns to raise awareness on a single cause—most have little enduring effect. Meanwhile, Cantona has not seen all his post-soccer exploits crowned with the same kind of glory and success his on-field magic often was. Cantona has been the target of no little mockery for wedging his public stands on behalf of the poor between his high profile, big money work in advertising for companies like Nike, Renault, and Gillette. Such sniggers were again heard in 2010, when Cantona urged people to help him provoke the collapse of the global banking system by withdrawing their savings en masse from banks on the same day. Not only did the adoring public not heed King Eric’s bank run call—Cantona himself staged a showy visit to his local branch to merely withdraw what his attorneys would only characterize as “a symbolic sum”.

However, perhaps as in sports, the most important thing about civic engagement is that it’s not about winning or losing, but rather making the effort to play the game at all. Plus, who’s a better bet to mobilize a crowd behind him? After all, if no one can bend it like Beckham, there’s still nobody who can generate the “ooh aaah” of attention and respect from the mighty and meek alike than Cantona.

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