Lilian Thuram’s comments on racism in football spark unwarranted backlash in France

A demonstration of just how far France has to go to confront some of its prejudices was laid bare this week after Lilian Thuram's comments on racism sparked a widespread and often misjudged debate.

In an interview with Italian journal Corriere dello Sport, Thuram, the most capped France international of all time with 142 appearances, spoke out about the racism suffered by Romelu Lukaku while playing for Inter Milan against Cagliari.

"There is an incredible hypocrisy and a lack of desire to resolve the problem," said Thuram, who spent a decade playing in Italy for Parma and Juventus. "Doing nothing is the equivalent of saying you agree with those who make racist chants.

"We must realise that the world of football is not racist, but rather that there is racism in Italian culture, French culture, European culture and more generally in white culture. We must have the courage to say that white people think they are superior and believe that they are. It is up to them to find a solution to their problem.

"Black people would never treat white people in this manner, for any reason. History shows this."

The comments caused a backlash in France, with Thuram, who has for many years campaigned against racism in football, being accused of making racist comments himself against white people.

La Ligue international contre le racisme et l'antisémitisme (LICRA) put out a statement describing Thuram's comments as 'unacceptable', while high-profile Canal Plus pundit, Pierre Ménès, stated that "the real problem in France, and particularly French football, is anti-white racism."

Ménès used the example of his son, who did not manage to make it as a professional footballer in France. "I invite everybody to get in their car and go to a match in the Parisian region this weekend, and count the number of white players on the pitch. At best, you will see a goalkeeper and a right-back."

Ménès concluded by saying that his son gave up football because 'nobody would speak to me, say hello, pass me the ball or even take a shower with me.'

Ménès later apologised for his comments.

"Anti-white racism"

The debate led to further examination of 'anti-white racism' in France, overlooking the original issue of the ongoing racist abuse dominating European football and the abuse suffered by Romelu Lukaku. Le Figaro published an article discussing anti-white racism in France, with others like TF1 joining in to report on the subject.

"Racism is not the monopoly of whites" read an editorial in Le Figaro.

The reality of the situation is that incidents of anti-white racism are insignificant when compared to the continuous and rising tide of racist abuse faced by black footballers in Europe over many years. Pierre Ménès, LICRA and Le Figaro draw a false equivalence when comparing the two, and the polemic created in examining anti-white racism in football, as has been the case in French mainstream media for several days now, misses the point.

"I do not understand that the words of #LilianThuram shock more than the racism against which he was originally speaking," said Rokhaya Diallo of RTL France.

"The idea that one can be raised in an environment is that it gives a feeling of superiority and feeds an inferiority complex among non-whites because of the messages sent by society. It is not shocking to say it."

Rather than carry on down this path, the debate in France should revert back to studying Lilian Thuram's comments more closely. French football must look to identify more and better ways to tackle racism and not be distracted.

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