France’s Rugby World Cup build-up was overshadowed Sunday by demands for lock forward Bastien Chalureau to be dropped from the squad after he was convicted of a racially motivated attack.
Chalureau had initially been left out of coach Fabian Galthie’s 33-man squad for the World Cup but was called up on Friday to replace injured Montpellier club teammate Paul Willemse.
However, the decision has sparked controversy stemming from 2020 when Chalureau was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence by a court in Toulouse for assaulting two former players.
He was found guilty of “acts of violence with the circumstance that these were committed because of the race or ethnicity of the victim”.
Chalureau, who was playing for Toulouse at the time, has always denied any racial element in the attack.
The 31-year-old, who has been capped six times, has appealed against the conviction.
Yannick Larguet, one of the victims of the attack, told regional daily La Depeche du Midi that Chalureau shouted “racist insults” before “he punched me in the jaw with all his might”.
Quizzed on Sunday evening if the controversy was affecting team preparations for the World Cup, French captain Antoine Dupont said Chalureau “always had an exemplary attitude, on and off the field”.
Galthie insisted that “racism has no place in the team” but when pressed on whether his team was affected by the growing controversy, told reporters “a World Cup is not for weaklings.
“Bastien has told us of the affair,” he said, adding that Chalureau had denied making any racist remarks.
Some politicians have demanded that he be removed from the squad.
Thomas Portes of the left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI) said that his party “will contact the minister of sports so that she can intervene and ask the French team not to select him”.
However, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said the appeal process should be respected.
“Let’s not set ourselves up as prosecutors in place of justice,” he told BFM TV on Sunday.
French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said that “pending the final court decision, everyone must let justice do its job, respecting the presumption of innocence”.
“The minister was able to speak with Florian Grill, president of the French Rugby Federation, and with Raphael Ibanez, general manager of the French team, who confirmed to her that an exchange had taken place on the subject between Bastien Chalureau and the staff of the France squad,” said a statement from the ministry sent to AFP.
“The player maintains his version of the facts and still formally denies having made racist remarks, which is why he proceeded to this appeal.”
Oudea-Castera “wants to reaffirm that being selected for the France team means representing the republican values of equality and fraternity, therefore behaving accordingly and in particular combating all forms of violence and discrimination,” added the spokesman.
France kick off the World Cup in Paris on Friday against three-time champions New Zealand.