Eric Cantona: Big democracies are, in a way, dictatorships

Eric Cantona, the former Manchester United striker, tells Sid Lowe about economic terrorism, the suitcase that shed light on his family and trying to understand himself

For a man who spoke of seagulls and trawlers in March 1995 after he had karate-kicked a fan, and paraphrased King Lear when he collected Uefas presidents award almost 25 years later, reciting as flies to wanton boys, we are for the gods, there is something in the simplicity of what Eric Cantona says now. He pictures himself standing with his mother and aunt, looking into his grandfathers eyes, and recalls the moment in the deep, slow voice that is unmistakably his. It was something he begins to say, pausing to seek the right words. Eventually he settles on emotional and then he stops, no flourish needed. It is the story of my family, mine, he says.

It is some story. In 2007 a suitcase was discovered in Mexico City, where it had been hidden for almost 70 years. Inside they found 126 old rolls of film containing 4,500 negatives; they also found a part of Cantona. Most of the pictures, smuggled out of France when the Nazis arrived, were taken by the photojournalist Robert Capa during the final months of the Spanish civil war. Capa had also been in Argels-sur-Mer, where 100,000 people fleeing Spain were held in a refugee camp, among them Pedro Raurich, 28, and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Paquita Farns.

Pedro was Cantonas grandfather and when the missing photographs were first exhibited in New York, he went looking for him. It was a Capa exhibition about the civil war, so I came and I saw a lot of pictures, he says, leaning forward, beard full, eyes deep. Theres a glass of red wine on a tiny table he arrives carrying it and he wears a flat cap. There were negatives, some bigger [prints]: two, three metres. Some were very small, you had to look with a loupe, a magnifying glass. And I say to Rachida [my wife]: I will try and I am sure we will find a picture of my grandparents.

And I saw one.

The photo showed Cantonas grandfather crossing the Pyrenees. I felt, er he starts. My grandparents didnt speak much about this, they didnt want [to], so we didnt ask questions. When I see the photograph, I thought about my mother, so I brought the book of the exhibition to my mother. It was small in the book. And then this exhibition travelled to Arles [in southern France] and I took my mother and her sister. He was young [in the picture], and I didnt know him when he was young. Is it him? My mother hadnt seen this kind of picture [of him]. I wanted them to see if it was him, and also to see him. He didnt speak a word to my mother too. And they said: Yes, its him. And they were very emotional.

On the table is a copy of George Orwells Homage to Catalonia, which Cantona has just been given. He has not read it, nor did his grandfathers story have him reaching for books on the civil war. Instead, he suggests, this is something deeper. Part of him, whoever he is, whatever he is: footballer, actor, artist, philanthropist, campaigner? Human being, he says. What kind? Ah, well I dont know, one with all kind of paradoxes, contradictions.

Some of it you cannot explain, he says. He describes, for example, how there is a colour that every time he sees it he feels sick, subconsciously linked to some boyhood illness. Theres an energy sometimes. Sometimes you have an explanation and sometimes no. There is a pause, then a grin. Its better when you have. But you try to understand and thats why life is a big adventure; even trying to understand ourselves is a big adventure.

Eric Cantona is escorted from the pitch by a policeman after being sent off for Manchester United at Galatasaray in 1993. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Although it is hard to explain, he believes his grandfathers experience, preserved in Capas photograph, is also preserved in him. It is a photo he wants to buy, bring home. Its in our DNA, my brothers and me, he says. I did a movie once where I was on a horse. There was a dog attacking the horse and this man said 200 years ago these dogs attacked horses for work. They dont know why, or need to, but its there. Its in us.

[My grandparents] didnt speak much but sometimes silence for kids is more important, in a good or bad way. When they dont say things, you imagine, you create your own story. We always felt very close to them. Thats my mothers side: my fathers side come from Sardinia. When Cantona retired, he went to Barcelona. I was born in 1966 and they were not allowed back for 25 years. I wanted to go to their place. And now I have land in Sardinia and I have the same feeling.

We feel a pull to our origins, I think, and the more they want to take us away from our origins, the more we want to go back. In France sometimes they want us to forget our origins, and I think it is a mistake. Its not because you are close to your origin, or speak the language, that you dont love the country where you are or will not learn French. Cantona points at his wife, sitting a few metres away with his brother, Jean-Marie, and son, Raphael. My wife, she is of origin Algerian, she speaks French perfectly and Arabic too. And its good. I ask her to speak to our son, our daughter, in Arabic. Its transmission.

Eric Cantona says: More and more you have racist fans all over the world using football. And we let it go. Photograph: Pedro Gomes/Getty Images/The Guardian

My grandparents are from Spain and Sardinia. And us? We are just lucky. I am French from two generations. But I dont want people to think they are [only] from this country or that one. I am a human being, I respect everybody. We are lucky to have different cultures, to speak to people, travel, respect their culture, Cantona says. The problem, he fears, is that there is a shift away from that view; a rise in nationalism, an anti-immigration agenda.

The big democracies go to where there are thousands of years of traditions and cultures and they want them to live like they want, he says. They have their own vision. For me that is a kind of terrorism. An economic terrorism. And big democracies inside are, in a way, dictatorships because they want to impose their vision. Its just my own view but I think we are lucky to have different cultures, thousands of cultures.

Its an economic problem, no? he says. It seems we dont use history to understand better today. In 1929 you had the crisis and then Italy and Germany and the war. It seems there is a repetition. Are you afraid it will end in war? See what is happening in the world, how the extreme right wing grew. I hope not but in some countries it is already like this. It is the same story but we dont care: its like we need it. Put the counter to zero, start again. Millions of people killed but it doesnt matter. Economically we will be at zero, start again.

How, then to stop it? Say things, move. Here, Cantona thinks football can play a role. But, he notes, you have players who support the extreme right in Brazil. Now more and more and more you have racist fans all over the world using football. And we let it go.

When he is trying to define himself, Cantona says: I had a good education: respect myself, respect people, even if I dont like it. I try to be free. But not completely. If I say everything I think Theres a smile and he adds: But I think I am free enough. The image, though, was always of a man who always said what he thought, even if it needed deciphering. The idea of him biting his tongue is an odd one. Sometimes I think what I say, he says with a grin. And I think I say much more than the majority of people.

Eric Cantona at the Uefa ceremony where he paraphrased King Lear in August. Photograph: Valerio Pennicino/Uefa via Getty Images

Especially footballers. I dont know why. We ask the footballer to play well but it is important that, even if they dont speak, they keep an eye on society, what happens around them. Football is our passion since we were kids, a dream, and maybe some dont have another. But a lot of footballers are curious. I dont think its [a lack of] intelligence. Who are we to say we are more intelligent than others? And what is intelligence? To play at the highest level you need to have this kind of intelligence, which is not less important than the one of a philosopher.

There should be more people using football, like Common Goal do, Cantona continues. He has become a mentor for the movement and in a few minutes will take to a stage in Lisbon before 10,000 people. There he will tell a story he runs through now. I was in Cartagena [Colombia] and I went to a very poor, poor, poor area, where there are people displaced by the Farc [leftist rebel group], 50,000 people, he says. There are no houses but they created a football pitch because they love football. To play they had to go to school and work. Maybe none will become professional but they will have been to school and that will help the rest of their lives.

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Because everyone loves football, you can do all sorts of things. More footballers and ex-footballers should use their position. Its important to encourage them to look around. If they dont want to speak, if they want to concentrate on their game, no problem. But at least know. And then at the end, maybe we will do something because you will know. But theres ignorance and it is a shame because players come from these kind of areas, and some forget. We have to make them understand. But, then, who are we to say we are right and they are wrong? I mean, I think I am right, but I dont know.

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