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Inside France's World Cup ceremony

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 By Mark Rodden

Eric Cantona defiant over criticism of France's Karim Benzema omission

Eric Cantona has said that the "unfair" omission of Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema from France's Euro 2016 squad had given him the right to ask questions about racism in French football.

Former France international Cantona created controversy last week when he suggested in The Guardian that Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa may have been overlooked for next month's tournament because of their ethnicity. 

Benzema added to the debate this week when he told Marca that France coach Didier Deschamps had bowed to pressure from "a racist part of France" when he chose not to select him for this month's tournament.

Cantona's comments were condemned by the French Football Federation (FFF) but, in an interview published by Liberation on Thursday, the ex-Manchester United forward said this had allowed the organisation to ignore concerns about the state of the game in the country.

"I find it unfair, which prompts me to ask questions," Cantona said of Benzema's omission.

He added: "There are players of Maghreb [north African] origin, but there you're talking about on the pitch -- it's objective the most often.

"Outside, on the other hand, it's subjective. The directors of Maghreb origin or of black Africa, where are they? And the Ligue 1 managers of Maghreb origin? When it's they who coach the kids.

"They're strong and competent enough to look after young players and they're no longer able to when these same players become professionals?"

Cantona also questioned whether Benzema's absence at Euro 2016 could have been politically motivated. He pointed out that in December the former Lyon forward had been suspended from the national team in between two rounds of regional elections. 

"The FFF is under the administration of the ministry for sports, and two members of government, the minister for sports Patrick Kanner and the prime minister Manuel Valls, publicly demanded that Benzema be left out for the Euros," Cantona said.

Eric Cantona has raised questions over the France squad for Euro 2016.

Meanwhile, like FFF president Noel Le Graet, former France midfielder Emmanuel Petit said he was disappointed by the timing of Benzema's interview with Marca.

"The French team didn't need Benzema's outburst," Petit told L'Equipe. "It puts oil on the fire and doesn't help Les Bleus or him.

"I have the impression that it's a little bit of vengeance for Karim. Yet he would need to understand the frustration of the French people. He's in the process of widening the gap between him and French public opinion.

"To be in the French team is not only about having intrinsic qualities -- it's also being an ambassador."

France are currently at a training camp in Austria before returning to start their Euro 2016 campaign against Romania on June 10.

Speaking at a news conference there on Wednesday, Bayern Munich winger Kingsley Coman described Benzema's remarks as "nonsense."

"I'm not here to talk about that," Coman said ahead of France's game with Scotland on Saturday. "I'm here to talk about the Euros and the 23 players [in the French squad].

"But to make a little point on racism, in the team there are a lot of players of colour and a lot of players of different origins. If there's racism, I don't know where it is, so I think it was nonsense."

Benzema was left out of the France squad after being charged with conspiracy to blackmail in November as part of an alleged attempt to extort money from his France teammate Mathieu Valbuena using a sex tape.

In the interview with Marca, Benzema argued that Lyon winger Valbuena was not telling the truth about the events that led to him being charged.

However, Valbeuna's lawyer has dismissed this claim.

"Despite the recent declarations of Karim Benzema, we maintain that Mathieu Valbuena never lied during this affair," Didier Domat told RMC.

"We're not fooled by the strategy of the opposing party, and the rest of the case will prove us right on this point.

"Mathieu Valbuena had the courtesy not to speak out before the end of the Euros and he will stick to this course of action."

Valbuena also missed out on being involved at Euro 2016 due to injuries and a loss of form.

Lilian Thuram has criticised Karim Benzema for making the comments.

Former France defender Lilian Thuram, now an active anti-racism campaigner, had little sympathy for Benzema on this occasion.

"I think his talk undermines him," Thuram told France Info radio station. "He forgets that if he wasn't picked, it's because there was an affair with Mathieu Valbuena. I think you have to remember that.

"I think that whether it's Didier Deschamps or the president of the federation, they would have liked him to be at the European Championship ... I think at a certain point it's fair to say to the players: 'That's enough.' That's to say that you have to protect the image of the French team."

Thuram, who earned a record 142 caps for France, feels Benzema could have used his position to better combat racism in the country.

"Firstly, racism exists in French society. What I would say is that Karim Benzema is in a a position where he can do a lot to denounce racism, which is on the rise in French society. For example I think it would have been huge if he became captain of the French team... but for that he would have had to be irreproachable."

Thuram was also disappointed that Benzema had decided to go public with such comments so close to Euro 2016.

"The timing is quite incredible," he said. "He says that he likes the French team but I have the impression that he likes them badly. His declarations could destabilise the squad -- even if the squad will say they don't."

Mark covers European football for ESPN FC. Twitter: @mrodden

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