Eric Cantona is a legend on the soccer pitch, a star on the silver screen, and an advocate for decent housing for the poor. This morning, he could become a banker's worst nightmare.
The self-described billionaire is behind a call for people around the world to withdraw their savings on the same day to try to destroy the international banking system. More than 60,000 people across Europe, in Canada, the U.S. and other countries have signed on to the Facebook page StopBanque, which calls for the action to take place today, and authors of the Belgium-based website Bank Run 2010 say they have heard from thousands of others who plan to take part.
Although very few expect the scheme to have much effect, French politicians and bank directors have scrambled in the last few days to discourage anyone who may be tempted to follow Mr. Cantona's advice. "There is nothing worse than a bank run," Jean-François Sammarcelli, director general of Europe's third largest bank, Société Générale, told a news conference. "It is extremely dangerous for individuals and just as dramatic for the entire system."
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde advised Mr. Cantona to stick to what he knows - soccer - and François Baroin, the Budget Minister, said: "It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic."
Commentators say the degree of interest in the idea shows how angry the French are at banks' behaviour leading up to the global financial crisis. But even left-wing politicians have urged people to be responsible.
Mr. Cantona, who was named soccer player of the century for his role in turning around the fortunes of the Manchester United football club in the 1990s, has always been a controversial figure. Several French football teams suspended him for bad behaviour, ranging from throwing a ball at a referee to calling each member of a soccer disciplinary commission panel an "idiot," before the ailing Manchester United picked him up. He led the team to four league titles and two Football Association cups, but was equally well known for once jumping into the crowd and kung-fu kicking a fan to retaliate for verbal abuse.
He followed that with this typically cryptic comment: "If seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they expect sardines to be thrown into the sea."
It's not clear if Mr. Cantona expected his latest pronouncements to capture the public imagination the way they have. Asked about October's street demonstrations against pension reform he told the French regional daily Presse Océan: "We have to change the way we do things nowadays…. Revolution is very simple to do nowadays.
"The system is built on the banks' power, so it can be destroyed by the banks," he added. "Instead of going on the street, people can simply go to the bank in their village and withdraw their money. And if a lot of people withdraw their money, the banks will collapse. No weapons, no blood, or anything like that."
A video recording of the interview quickly went viral, and the idea of a bank run was picked up by Belgian screenwriter Geraldine Feuillién, who set up the website Bank Run 2010 and set the date for a mass cash withdrawal as Dec. 7 - the same number as Mr. Cantona's jersey number.
Asked by the newspaper Libération whether he would heed the call, Mr. Cantona said "Given the strange solidarity that has sprung up, yes. On December 7, I'll be at the bank."
Special to The Globe and Mail