PARIS (Reuters) - Football star turned actor Eric Cantona launched a mock bid for the French presidency on Tuesday in a stunt designed to highlight the plight of millions of poor and homeless people.
The former Manchester United striker appeared on the front cover of the left-leaning Liberation newspaper, next to the headline "Cantona enters the campaign" and an appeal for the 500 signatures he would need to run for the top job.
The paper made it clear Cantona would not actually stand but wanted to use the publicity to campaign for better housing for as many as 10 million people he said were priced out of the property market.
"Housing is not just a real problem. It's a problem that is really treated with contempt," Cantona, 45, told the newspaper.
The announcement by the media-savvy celebrity did succeed in raising the issue higher up the political agenda, for a few hours at least.
Ministers from President Nicolas Sarkozy's government were quick to pick up on an issue that has not featured prominently in the debate so far, with just over 100 days to the opening vote, on April 22, in a two-round presidential election.
"Eric Cantona is highlighting a real issue," said Nathalie Kosciuski-Morizet, environment minister. "He's right when he says sub-standard housing is an issue despite all the government's efforts," she told Europe 1 radio.
She like others will be wary of the damage that the broody celebrity could potentially do to Sarkozy's camp in the run-up to an election where Socialist challenger Francois Hollande is the pollsters' favourite.
Three decades ago, popular stand-up comic Coluche (real name Michel Colucci) caused alarm among mainstream presidential candidates when he announced that he too was going to join the race, saying: "Before me, France was split in two. With me it will split its sides (laughing)."
Legend has it that Coluche, who never followed through on his candidacy declaration, received several visits from envoys sent by the two principal candidates in the election of 1981, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and ultimate winner Francois Mitterrand.
Cantona's appeal may have more resonance than his previous foray into French activism.
In December 2010, he called on French savers to stage a nationwide bank run by withdrawing their money from financial institutions because of their role in triggering the global financial crisis. Panned by the media as a flop, almost no one in France heeded the much-hyped call.
The price of existing housing more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 but disposable incomes rose by just one third in the same period, according to the national statistics office, INSEE.
Hardship in paying for housing and paying other bills after those for housing is increasingly disproportionally among poorer people, according to the charity Cantona is helping, the Fondation Abbe Pierre.