Citizen Cantona

Eric Cantona - l'enfant terrible, Manchester United legend, beach footballer, actor...political activist? Greg Theoharis on the YouTube interview that has 'King Eric' looking to us for action.

“Don’t Vote. It only encourages them.” – Author Unknown

As an unintentional act of gonzo filmmaking and an inadvertent rallying call for a nation’s disenfranchised it was masterly in its ramshackle execution. In little under a week, an interview given by Eric Cantona for a regional newspaper in Nantes has received in excess of 120,000 hits on YouTube.

The camerawork is shoddy, the sound muffled and the décor surrounding him seems to have been lifted straight out of a guerrilla recruitment drive replete with black-draped curtains and stark walls. And dominating the frame, he sits. Sporting a symbolically red sweater and a beard that would not be out of place at a convention of socialism’s most infamous and celebrated exponents. Speaking calmly but with eloquence, Eric Cantona presented his idealistic yet simple philosophy for the world.

“Nowadays what does it mean to be on the streets? To demonstrate? You swindle yourself,” he explained in reference to the discontent that is sweeping France due to the public purse being necessarily tightened. “It’s not complicated; instead of going on the streets and driving kilometres by car you simply go to the bank in your country and withdraw your money.” It really is that simple. Well it is and it isn’t but at least Cantona is offering something. After all, he does have previous when taking matters into his own hands… or feet.

Regardless, Cantona’s comments seem to have struck a nerve. The StopBanque movement has been inspired by the interview and has begun organising a mass withdrawal of funds by citizens set to take place on 7th December. The wheels of social networking websites have been set in motion and it is estimated that so far 14,000 people have signed up to the cause. And there’s the rub… 14,000. The financial institutions that hold our economies to ransom are hardly quaking in their boots at the thought of a walk-in and walkout protest by some very ticked off global citizens. But just imagine if it really did take off… really, just imagine.

Cantona has so far remained reticent about whether or not he will be participating in the action and many might seek to criticise a millionaire footballer pontificating from a position of wealth, status and relative comfort. However, to dismiss the notion of non-conformity as a frivolous aside would not encapsulate the sentiment behind the thought. The progenitors of ideas are not necessarily the people who enact them. What many of us need is a spark or a flash of inspiration to find the motivation to actually change our perceptions and situations.

An example of this is Barack Obama who so successfully captured the need for change after years of corporate avarice and macho posturing in American politics. However, he has been vilified for not delivering on this with the immediacy everybody expected. This attitude fails to take into account the concept that Obama was offering. He may have been the catalyst for attempting to alter a society’s core values and belief structure but those who will seek to lambaste him for his shortcomings forget the famous soundbite from another lionised American President: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.

Cantona’s pronouncements, in their simplicity, highlight a need to take responsibility for changing things that we don’t agree with, be that morally or ethically. Every Sunday night, message boards go into frenzy at the latest eviction from reality shows. The apoplexy on display bemoans the cynical manipulation of our emotions by Machiavellian Svengalis who plant stories into the gutter press for us to devour and gossip over with relish.

Football supporters decry the ever-growing price rises in our football stadiums. They moan about having to buy yet another club kit, or about the fact that their clubs are plunged into insurmountable debt by clinical, profit-driven moneymen. They cry foul play when fixture lists are tampered with to meet global demands and begrudge the extravagant pay packets dolled out to the game’s stars.

On the streets, public sector workers fear stringent cuts in spending. Students are protesting against tuition fee rises. Families are being penalised for earning just a little too much. As more and more countries feel the harsh winds of austerity blow across their borders, people are growing angrier. They’re disgruntled. But apart from having a grumble, nothing much really changes. Unless…

Unless… you stop playing the game, as Cantona says. Withdraw your money from the banks. Stop paying your taxes. Switch channels on a Sunday night. Boycott going to games. The banks and the government, Simon Cowell and Rupert Murdoch and the Glazers view us all as consumers. So if we stop consuming, it stands to reason that they’d have to listen, wouldn’t they?

Unfortunately, what makes Eric’s line of thought utopian in its conception is the fact that such a collective will contradicts the conflicting nature of us as human beings. Not all people will agree with Cantona’s egalitarian principles and it takes a society that is truly oppressed such as Suu Kyi’s Burma or Tsarist Russia or Ceausescu’s Romania, to truly yearn and enforce change.

And because of that, rightly or wrongly, more people will fret over an overweight, sonically-challenged Brazilian butchering Viva Las Vegas on X Factor than taking on the sage advice of that most rare of things - a footballer with a social conscience.

As well as writing for In Bed with Maradona, Greg Theoharis produces his excellent weekly blog, Dispatches From A Football Sofa, you can also find Greg on twitter @gregtheoharis