With French coach Didier Deschamps already having to fend off suggestions he omitted players on the grounds of their “North African Origins”, one of those rejected players, Karim Benzema poured oil on the fire in an interview in the Spanish press on Wednesday.
Benzema, who was left out of the squad after becoming embroiled in a sex tape blackmail scandal, said the real reason he had been rejected was because coach Didier Deschamps had “bowed to pressure from a racist part of France”.
The Real Madrid player suggested that the growing influence of the far right National Front in France showed that France had a problem with racism and that was the real reason he wasn't part of the squad.
“You need to know that in France, the extreme right got to the second round of the last two elections. But I don’t know whether it’s an individual decision by Deschamps because I get on well with him and with the president (of the French Football Association). I get on well with everyone,” Benzema told the sports daily Marca.
— MARCA (@marca) May 31, 2016
After dropping the hand grenade Benzema then said: “I am with France and I wish them well”.
Benzema’s inflammatory comments came after former player Eric Cantona accused the French coach of leaving out the Madrid player and fellow player Hatem Ben Arfa, who is also of North African origin, on the grounds of race.
Deschamps reacted by launching legal action against Cantona.
French comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze appeared to support Cantona by saying the two players were “a victim of the social climate in France”.
Debbouze, who is of Franco-Moroccan origin, lamented that the fact that none of “our representatives” were selected to play for France.
On Wednesday irate French politicians lined up to defend Deschamps.
Bruno Le Maire a potential presidential candidate for the centre-right Les Republicains party said: “France is not a racist country. I deplore these comments that are aimed at everyone but no-one.”
French Sports Minister Patrick Kanner said: “I can understand Mr Benzema's disappointment but under no circumstances are his statements acceptable.”
Secretary of State for Sports Thierry Braillard blasted Benzema’s comments as “totally unjustified” and “unacceptable”.
Braillard rejected any idea there was a problem with racism at the French football federation and implored the public to get behind the French team.
Socialist politician Benoit Hamon said the player was right to raise the issue that racism was on the rise in France.
'A missed opportunity'
France's squad is one of the tournaments most multi-racial with some 13 players from African, Caribbean and Indian Ocean origin. Only one of those – the late call-up Adil Rami is of North African origins.
Without the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri there are fewer players whose origins are North African than might have been expected.
But to be fair to Deschamps, Benzema is facing trial accused of helping blackmail a teammate over a sex tape, Ben Arfa is known a troubled character who can be hard to work with, despite his obvious talent and Samir Nasri has previously vowed to never play for France again after falling out with the country's football chiefs, journalists and supporters.
When France won the World Cup on home soil in 1998 the victory – achieved thanks in the main to Zinedine Zidane – whose parents were Algerian, was hailed as going beyond sport with the multi-cultural “Black-Blanc-Beur” team helping to unite a country, where immigrant communities – particular those from North Africa had struggled to integrate.
Former player Cantona believes the Euro 2016 team could have had achieved something similar in today's still fractured France, if more players of North African origin had been selected.
“In this time of trouble and division, I would have liked all of the France that I love and dream of be represented in this France team. Football for me is a fantastic way of integration and should serve to unify and unite,” Cantona said in a column published in Le Journal du Dimanche.
“We missed this chance by not selecting Benzema and Ben Arfa, two of the best French players.
“Firstly I think that from a sporting point of view it's a mistake and then, this European Championships, which moreover is in France, is an extraordinary opportunity to send a clear message to the extremists, whoever they might be.”