What if Cantona’s bid wasn’t a publicity stunt?

By Peter Dunne

Former Manchester United star and actor, Eric Cantona declared on Monday that he intended to run in the upcoming French presidential election.  However on Tuesday morning after much excitement, it was revealed that it was merely a publicity stunt to highlight the housing crisis in France.

An article published on the 9th January by the French left-wing daily newspaper Libération suggested Cantona had written to all of the country’s mayors, of which there are about 36,000, and was seeking their nomination to run in the election, to be held on 22nd April.

If Cantona was actually running in the presidential election he would have needed the backing of at least 500 elected public officials.  Libération also published the letter in full in which he describes how he wants to “carry a simple but clear message – a message of truth but of respect, a powerful message of solidarity”.

In his letter Cantona denounced the limited opportunities for young people in France and social injustices which were “too numerous, too violent, too systematic”. He went on to highlight the housing problem in France.  However this was later confirmed by Cantona and Libération as a publicity stunt to highlight the problem of the housing crisis.

Instead of writing to the public officials to ask for their support in his effort to win the election; Cantona actually wrote to them calling for them to sign a petition on the French housing crisis and to support the French charity the Abbé Pierre Foundation.

This is not the first time Cantona has used his position as a public figure to draw attention to social inequality and the need for change.  In December 2010 he called on French citizens to stage a bank run by simultaneously withdrawing all of their savings in a response to the economic crisis which was caused by a number of financial institutions.  This was highly regarded as a failure as a very small amount of people took part and there was no real guidance as no bank in particular was targeted.

Cantona is internationally one of the most famous and recognisable living Frenchmen.  He rose to fame in the 1990s as a professional footballer. He scored 64 goals in 144 games during his five years at Manchester United, having previously played for Leeds United and a number of teams in the French top division (Ligue 1).  He also scored 20 times in 45 appearances for the French national team, which he had captained.

In 1995 while playing Manchester United away at Crystal Palace, Cantona assaulted a Crystal Palace fan by attacking with a ‘Kung-Fu style’ kick which was followed by a series of punches. Cantona was arrested and convicted for assault, resulting in a two week prison sentence. This was overturned in the appeal court and instead he was sentenced to 120 hours of community service.

At a press conference called later, Cantona gave what is perhaps his most famous quotation. Cantona said, very slowly and calmly: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” He then got up from his seat and left the room, leaving the assembled media in a state of confusion.

This incident was a worldwide controversy and also damaged Cantona’s professional football career as it led to him being stripped of his captaincy of the French international team.  In 1997, Cantona left Manchester United and retired from international football.  Upon retirement he declared he had aspirations to become an actor.  Since retiring, Cantona has become a successful actor and is most famous for playing himself in Ken Loach’s 2009 film Looking for Eric.

There have been a number of public figures who have won elections in the past. Ronald Reagan who was previously a successful actor became the Governor of California (1967-1975) and was then elected to become the 40th President of the United States (1981-1989).

Arnold Schwarzenegger used his status as an actor and businessman to successfully run in an election to become the Governor of California; he served two terms from 2003 until 2011.  However it is likely that Cantona’s attempt would have been similar to that of musician Wyclef Jean, who filed for candidacy for the 2010 Haiti presidential election.

Jean fell at the first hurdle as the Haitian Electoral Commission deemed him ineligible as he had not lived in Haiti in the last five years.  A singer who has collaborated with Jean has also recently announced a bid to run for presidency.  Youssou N’Dour who is a Senegalese singer has announced that he is running for Candidacy in the Senegalese elections which happen in March; unlike Cantona’s bid, this does look like a bona fide bid and not a stunt.

If Cantona had run for presidency he would not have gone far and almost certainly would have not passed the first round of votes. The main reason for this is his lack of support from a political party, as it is virtually impossible to get to the second round of the election without the backing of a large political party.  It would be even harder to do so for a candidate like Cantona who has no real political experience.

As a publicity stunt however, it was a piece of genius and worked very well, as his bid was covered by the worldwide media thus highlighting his concerns and promoting efforts to remedy the housing situation. On the other hand, whether or not the ends justify the means is a different matter. As a celebrity and public figure, one could say that Cantona could also have used other channels of influence to make himself heard, rather than pretending to run for presidency.

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