France accused of excluding players of North African origin from squad for tournament

One of France’s best-known actors has renewed allegations that brilliant players of North African origin have been deliberately excluded from the host country’s squad for the Euro 2016 football championship.

Jamel Debbouze, a stand-up comedian turned film actor and director, reignited a controversy that was kicked off last week by footballer-turned-actor Eric Cantona.

Mr Debbouze, who is of Franco-Moroccan origin, said he regretted the fact that none of “our representatives” were selected to play for France in the competition, which starts at the end of next week. The absence of star players of North African origin would, he said, deepen tensions in the poor multi-racial suburbs surrounding French cities.

Last week, Mr Cantona, former ManchesterUnited and France striker, caused consternation when he accused the France manager, Didier Deschamps, of excluding two talented players because of their North African “origins”. Mr Deschamps has since announced that he plans to sue Mr Cantona for defamation.

The controversy has caused anger and some puzzlement in France because the squad of 23 chosen by Mr Deschamps is one of the most multiracial in the tournament. Thirteen of the players are non-white, including players of African, West Indian and Indian Ocean origin.

However, the original squad featured no players whose families came from the former French colonies and protectorates in North Africa – Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. This week, Adil Rami, a central defender born in Corsica who is of Moroccan origin, was added to the squad because of injuries to other players.

The controversy centres on the decision by Mr Deschamps to exclude the Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, regarded as one of the finest players in the world, and the Nice and former Hull City winger Hatem ben Arfa. Benzema was not picked because he is under formal investigation for allegedly helping childhood friends to blackmail a France team-mate. Ben Arfa, a brilliant but inconsistent player, was included in a larger training squad but did not make the cut in the final 23.

A former professional football coach in France told The Independent: “This is a very sensitive area. If there were no North African players in the original squad, it wasn’t the fault of Deschamps. Benzema would have been an automatic pick if it wasn’t for his legal problems.

“And there are several French-born players of North African origin who would have been picked if they had not opted to play for other countries. Riyad Mahrez [of Leicester City] was elected player of the year in England. He was born in Sarcelles [in the north Paris suburbs]. Why is he not at Euro 2016? Because he has chosen to play for Algeria.”

The tendency of talented young footballers from the banlieues of French cities to choose to play for African or North African countries is already a controversial subject in France, as is the habit of young football fans from the banlieues to display Algerian, Tunisian or Moroccan flags at France matches.

In an interview with The Guardian last week, Mr Cantona made no mention of this wider context. He said: “Benzema is a great player. Ben Arfa is a great player. But Deschamps, he has a really French name. Maybe he is the only one in France to have a truly French name. Nobody in his family mixed with anybody, you know. Like the Mormons in America.”

“So I’m not surprised he used the (legal) situation of Benzema not to take him. And Ben Arfa is maybe the best player in France today. But they have some origins. I am allowed to think about that.”

Mr Debbouze, in an interview with France Football magazine, stopped short of accusing Mr Deschamps or French football of racism, but said that Benzema and Ben Arfa were “paying the price” of the country’s suspicious attitude toward young people of North African origin.

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