Only days before the Rugby World Cup starts in France, the home team's preparations for the tournament have been disrupted by calls to remove one of its players because of a historic racism charge.
The controversy started over the weekend after injured lock Paul Willemse was replaced in France’s 33-man squad by Bastien Chalureau.
Chalureau’s inclusion was immediately questioned by several left-wing French lawmakers, who said they will ask Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra to intervene and make sure the player would not be selected because of a sentencing back in 2020 for racially motivated acts of violence.
At the time, Chalureau was tried for an assault on two rugby players, Yannick Larguet and Nassim Arif. Although he admitted to the violence, Chalureau denied the racist nature of the attack and has appealed the six-month suspended prison sentence he was handed.
“I’ve got all kinds of stories where I’ve been a jerk, that I accept. But racist? Never,” he told L’Equipe newspaper last year.
Oudéa-Castéra insisted on Monday that since Chalureau appealed the ruling and there has not been a final conviction he should benefit from a presumption of innocence.
“I’m not asking for his exclusion,” she said in an interview with Sud Radio. “Violence is obviously always a problem, and the racist dimension is unacceptable. But the player has appealed precisely because he denies the racist dimension of the remarks made. It’s up to the courts to decide. It’s important that they can do their job calmly.”
World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin later told a press conference “there is absolutely no place for discrimination of any form in rugby, and certainly racism."
Gilpin, however, stopped short of asking for sanctions against Chalureau.
“We have to respect the legal process," he said. “Presumption of innocence continues because of the appeal that is taking place.”
The Montpellier lock made his debut last November, coming off the bench against South Africa. He played in three of France’s four warmup games in August.
Recalling the attack, Larguet told newspaper La Depeche du Midi that Chalureau hurled repeated racist insults in a Toulouse street, then punched him in the jaw before hitting his friend, too.
“The first thing would have been for (coach) Fabien Galthié not to call him up to the French team,” French lawmaker Thomas Portes told RMC radio. "With my fellow MP François Piquemal, we’re going to ask the sports minister to intervene and ask the French team not to select him.”
Asked about the controversy, France captain Antoine Dupont said it has not affected the team, which opens the tournament against three-time champion New Zealand on Friday.
“We were aware of the story and there is still a live court case, I believe,” he said. “But with us, Bastien has been exemplary, on and off the field. Our main concern is what happens on the field and Bastien prepares perfectly as far as we are concerned.”
Galthié said Chalureau had informed the staff about his case, denying accusations.
“For four years, racism has had no place in our team, it has no place in rugby,” said Galthié, who was appointed head coach after the 2019 World Cup. “Integrity is a fundamental value of our team and our sport.”
Recalling the killing last year of former Argentina rugby player Federico Martin Aramburu in Paris by suspected far-right extremists, Portes said he is worried by the growing number of racist incidents in rugby.
“Take a look at the lower divisions, where there have been a number of incidents, and racist insults on the field over the last few months,” he said. “To send out a signal by saying that you can be a member of the French team, wearing the jersey of the French team, when you’ve been convicted of racist remarks, is absolutely unacceptable.”
Another Montpellier player, Mohamed Haouas, is missing the Rugby World Cup after he was convicted of domestic violence.
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