Laurent Blanc cleared in racism inquiry

Updated: May 10, 2011, 11:33 AM ET
Associated Press

PARIS -- France's sports minister cleared national team coach Laurent Blanc of discrimination claims on Tuesday.

Chantal Jouanno said no anti-discrimination laws were broken when Blanc and soccer federation colleagues discussed whether quotas should be introduced to curb training academy access for young French players with dual nationality, many of them black and Arab.

"It emerges very clearly that ways to limit the numbers of so-called dual-national players ... including putting in place quotas were, in fact, debated" at the Nov. 8 French Football Federation meeting of coaches that Blanc attended, she said.

"The subject was raised in a manner both clumsy and clearly uncalled-for, clearly uncalled-for," Jouanno added. "The general impression that emerges is really very unpleasant, with innuendoes that very often were borderline tending toward racist."

The FFF's inquiry released its decision later Tuesday, also clearing Blanc but reproaching him for taking part in a discussion that should not have happened in the first place.

"Laurent Blanc is angry with himself for what he said and can't believe he made [those comments]," said Patrick Braouezec, head of the French Football Federation's inquiry.

Braouezec said his inquiry's report has been handed to FFF president Fernand Duchaussoy, and to the FFF's federal council. The council meets Thursday to discuss the issue, but it appears highly unlikely at this stage that Blanc will be punished.

But while possible quotas were discussed, Jouanno said the idea was subsequently dismissed and they weren't implemented. For that reason, she said that there are no grounds to start legal proceedings.

"This solution of quotas was discarded," she said. "Our evidence does not establish the existence of any system of quotas or plans for discriminatory quotas.

"I'm not here to chop off heads. It's not my role."

Online news site Mediapart first reported details of the meeting, sparking argument and soul-searching about racism in France, which won the 1998 World Cup with a multiracial team that included Blanc. Former teammates Lilian Thuram and Patrick Vieira were among Blanc's critics in the wake of Mediapart's revelations. But others including Zinedine Zidane supported him.

The sports ministry and the FFF both launched inquiries into the affair.

Jouanno defended Blanc, saying it was the first time that the coach had been to this type of FFF meeting.

"He wasn't the organizer. He wasn't the pilot," she said.

She said the 1998 World Cup winner was very surprised to learn at the meeting that many youths who could play for France end up playing for other countries. She said that Blanc has proved in his career that he does not discriminate.

"No fact shows that Laurent Blanc approves of discriminatory positions," Jouanno said.

According to Mediapart's transcript, Blanc told the meeting "it bothers me enormously" when players who represented France at the youth level later "go to play in North African or African teams."

"That has to be limited," Mediapart quoted Blanc as saying.

Jouanno said in Blanc's defense that he also told the meeting: "If there are only blacks in the training centers and these blacks are French and want to play in the France team that is all fine by me."

The minister said that French youth coaches face "a real problem" of how to keep dual-nationality players.

In 2009 and 2010, 24 of 60 young French players who received training from the soccer federation chose to play for a country other than France, she said. Two youth team players even refused a call-up to the national squad, which is "totally unacceptable," she said.

Changes to FIFA regulations in 2009 making it easier for players to represent other countries have accentuated the problem and "destabilized" France's youth team, she added.

"So the problem is real, but one of the responses that was envisaged -- implementing quotas -- is totally, totally illegal," she said.

"It is totally unthinkable," she said.

The minister said it is for the FFF to decide whether to fire its technical director Francois Blaquart. According to Mediapart's transcript, he suggested at the meeting that an unspoken "sort of quota" could be introduced.

Jouanno said Blaquart's words "are regrettable. He himself acknowledged that."

However, she added that the probe found no evidence to show that he holds "a racist or discriminatory philosophy."

Braouezec, the French soccer chief who already had headed a commission examining the reasons for the France team's strike at last year's World Cup, said that there is "no element to hand that can show that a quota [system] was put into place" or officially planned.

"This criteria was not put into place when looking for young players at the start of 2011," Braouezec said.

But he lambasted the fact that any such meeting could take place, and reiterated that there should never be any criteria for youth players regarding color, as "the only criteria for a 12-year-old is his sporting ability."

He added the French soccer federation's mode of governance is "completely shattered" and must be addressed quickly.

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press