French soccer star Thuram slams Sarkozy's "racism"

MADRID, April 14 Sat Apr 14, 2007 11:40am BST

MADRID, April 14 (Reuters) - Lilian Thuram, part of France's famed multiethnic soccer team, lashed out at Nicolas Sarkozy on Saturday, accusing the conservative presidential candidate of being racist and causing dangerous divisions in the country.

Thuram has often spoken out against racism and last year caused a furore by inviting homeless immigrants to an international football match.

"Sarkozy's rhetoric isn't quasi-racist, it is racist," Thuram said in an interview with Spain's El Mundo newspaper.

"He wants to create a ministry of immigration and national identity and that's dangerous ... When you start to divide people and see one group here, Muslims there, the blacks over there, you teach people to see others as different."

Sarkozy has defended his plans for a ministry to protect France's traditional values, saying France had a "gigantic problem" with integration.

"What is being integrated? My mother is French, my father is French. Why do I have to be 'integrated'? Because I am black. You'd never ask if a white man was integrated," Thuram was quoted as saying.

"France doesn't have a problem with immigration, it has a problem with citizenship. Some French people don't think other Frenchmen are French. If I stop playing football tomorrow and I go back to France, people won't see me as a Frenchman, they'll see me as an immigrant," he said.

Sarkozy has focused his campaign on immigration, security and national identity issues that traditionally belong to the far-right National Front in a bid to draw away support from its candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in an April 22 first round vote.

The top two candidates meet in a run-off on May 6 if no one obtains a majority.