If a Hollywood actor can become President of the USA, and an Austrian body-builder can become governor of California, why can’t Eric Cantona be the President of France?

The 45 year old former Manchester United star made the front page of left-wing French newspaper Liberation on 10 January, confirming that he had written to the mayors of France for the “500 signatures” required to become a presidential candidate.

However, don’t be too alarmed: the provocative footballer assures that he is not looking to take the future position of Nicolas Sarkozy or Francois Hollande, but simply to bring their attention to France’s housing problem. “Housing is a huge issue in France”, he told the paper, “but the worst problem is that the presidential candidates aren’t addressing it.”

So, is Cantona credible? The last time he was in the French press was in December 2010, when he called for people to withdraw all their money from cashpoint machines to protest the global financial crisis. Some withdrew their money, but Cantona did not. He affirmed that he would pull out 15,000 euros, but never did.

Cantona’s letter to the mayors was published in Liberation. He refers to himself as an “engaged citizen”, with a “keen sense of [his] responsibility”.  He talks about the “millions of families whose daily suffering is too-often forgotten and from which the government’s ministers are so estranged.” He also mentions what he perceives as the main problems of today’s France, where the chances offered to young people are “too limited”, and the injustices made against them are  “too numerous” and ”too violent.”

The 500 signatures will allow him, he says, to bring his simple, clear message, which apparently “millions of families are waiting for.”

Few of the French have missed the resemblance between Cantona’s campaign and that of comedian Coluche in 1981. Coluche ran for President against Francois Mitterand as a joke (his slogan was, “They take you all for imbeciles, so why not vote for an imbecile?”) and gained shocking popularity in the polls, with 16% of voters claiming they would vote for him at one point. He set up the Restos du Coeur (Restaurants of the Heart), a volunteer association which brings assistance to the poor and homeless, most notably by the provision of free meals, and aiding social and economic rehabilitation. In 2010, the Restos du Coeur distributed 109 million meals to France’s poor.

In France, over 8 million people live below the poverty line. The price of rent in Paris has risen by 50% over the past 10 years, and 89% of the French consider their rent too expensive. 1 in 20 people living in France will experience homelessness during their lives.

Perhaps Cantona’s provocative candidature will not fall flat, as his ‘credit crisis protest’ did. Let us hope that it will instead make housing one of the main issues for the 2012 elections, and that he will gain a legacy akin to that of Coluche, who proved that provocation made in jest, with perseverance, can lead to lasting social change.

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