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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 April 2007, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
French rivals enlist sports stars
By Petru Clej
BBC News

Candidates in the French presidential election are lining up sports stars, a sign that the campaign is becoming increasingly Americanised.

Former French tennis star Yannick Noah
Yannick Noah supports Segolene Royal because he distrusts Nicolas Sarkozy

Most of the endorsements go to the top candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal.

Some of the sportspeople involved are black, underscoring the importance of the race and immigration debate.

Opinion polls have consistently favoured Mr Sarkozy ahead of Ms Royal for the first round due on 22 April.

The latest high-profile endorsement is that of Yannick Noah, former tennis star, who has plumped for Ms Royal, the Socialist candidate.

According to a recent poll, Noah is the second most popular sports personality, behind footballer Zinedine Zidane.

Noah, who is the child of a mixed couple, attributed his support for Ms Royal to his distrust of Mr Sarkozy, who until recently was interior minister in the centre-right government.

"I would be utterly disappointed if Nicolas Sarkozy was elected," Noah said.

"For myself, for immigrant workers, for all those who would have to prove daily they are French, although, like myself, they are born in France."

Race and immigration

Nicolas Sarkozy became unpopular with some sections of the large communities of immigrants, some of them third-generation French, after the 2005 riots in the suburbs of large cities when, in his capacity of interior minister, he called the rioters "rabble".

Lilian Thuram
Footballer Lilian Thuram has clashed with Nicolas Sarkozy
He was confronted by the black footballer Lilian Thuram, who denounced in January the "racial" vision of Mr Sarkozy.

Thuram, who plays for CF Barcelona, has carefully avoided specifically endorsing a candidate.

But Mr Sarkozy can line up another great star: footballer Basile Boli, who is a former glory of the French national team.

Born in the Ivory Coast, Boli has successfully converted from footballer to businessman, owning a company which employs 14 people.

He strongly supports Mr Sarkozy and his clampdown on illegal immigration, mentioning a meeting with an African immigrant who told him he was earning 6,000 euros (4,080) a month in child allowance, which left him incensed.

Boli also supports the controversial proposal to create an immigration and national identity ministry.

"I played in England and Japan. In both countries there is such a department," Boli told Le Monde newspaper.

"I say this is a good thing, because it simplifies all procedures."

Americanised campaign

Most famous sports people who have pledged their support are attracted by the two main candidates, who are tipped to qualify for the runoff on 6 May.

Bernard Laporte
French rugby coach Bernard Laporte is backing Nicolas Sarkozy
According to the French press, apart from Basile Boli, the Sarkozy camp can boast footballer Gregory Coupet and football coach Paul Le Guen, rugby national coach Bernard Laporte, former cyclist Richard Virenque and former Formula 1 world champion Alain Prost.

Besides Yannick Noah, Ms Royal can count on the support of athletes like Muriel Hurtis and Patricia Girard.

It is a sign that the French campaign is increasingly borrowing features from the glitzy US campaigns, where sport stars' endorsements are highly prized.

Sport star involvement in French politics is not by any means atypical though

  • Maurice Herzog, the conqueror in 1950 of Annapurna - the first 8,000-m (26,300-ft) summit climbed in history - was a minister under President Charles de Gaulle, from 1958 to 1963
  • In more recent times, world champion skater Alain Calmat was minister under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand from 1984 to 1986
  • Former Olympic 110 m hurdles champion, Guy Drut, was a sports minister from 1995 to 1997 and, although convicted of corruption to a 15 month suspended sentence, he was pardoned by President Jacques Chirac and will defend in June his parliamentary seat for the UMP party led by Nicolas Sarkozy

Should sports stars endorse politicians?

Your comments:

Politics have grown very unfavourable in France; this election's candidates need to appeal to the French population by other means than promises of reform, especially after so many have been made to naught during the last 2 election campaigns. Sports stars are the candidates' last resort as they play a prominent role in the French lifestyle. Moreover, they are key figures for the French population as a whole, despite ethnic diversities. Their endorsement might revive French political involvement.
Anabelle Selway, Paris, France

I think they (the athletes) should, if they want, express their opinion regarding the election. However, I feel the average citizen should keep in mind that they are not objective, they have private interests just like an other voter, and due to their fame disproportionate media attention.
Rich, Smithtown, NY

I think sportsmen have a say in politics of their country. Sportsmen of African origin also have a say because France depends entirely on them. It's a fact that most people would not admit but it's true. I don't really know if they are being used because sportsmen like Lilian Thuram has always been against Sarkozy and his policies on immigration. They understand political issues and can foresee what will become of their brothers and sisters should Sarkozy get into power. They also understand that Sarkozy is angry at them. What they do not understand is: why them as Africans and not other immigrants from Eastern Europe or Asia?
Mokubung, Strasbourg

The point is not so much whether sports "stars" should or should not openly endorse politicians. That would appear to be up to them. The more important issue is the question both the media and the voters should ask themselves: What is the value of the political opinion of someone whose most remarkable achievement in life so far has been the ability to kick a ball, to ride a bicycle or to use his or her legs running or skating?
William, The Netherlands

There is no right or wrong really but politicians in France are cleverly using the endorsement of famous sportsmen and women as well as artists because the French population feel closer to the latter. There is a growing interest in the lives of celebs in France and celebrities from all fields are characters who act as role models for citizens who do not trust the candidates and who have lost faith in the Governments.
Celine Allano, London

Yes, they have as much right as anyone else to support politicians, but the outcome of an election shouldn't be based on how many famous people agree with the candidate's views.
Rose, UK

I think sports stars should endorse politicians because politics affects us all and they should do it because they have influence. They are also representative of the population immigrant or native born.
Zacharia Otieno, Strasbourg, France

I think sports stars have every right to endorse politicians. What's important to understand is these sports stars aren't signing contracts to be on board with one party or the other. These are real people who understand the issues, and back their candidate just like anyone else would.
Nicholas , LaGrange Park, IL

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