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French soccer looking to stop homophobia in stadiums

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PARIS (AP) — The French soccer league has set up an action plan to tackle homophobia in its stadiums, a system that will pave the way for judicial sanctions against abusive fans.

Often heard at French league matches, homophobic chants have been tolerated for a long time by many club officials, and soccer authorities have struggled to find the appropriate ways of tackling the issue.

But under the plan unveiled Monday by French soccer league president Nathalie Boy de la Tour, abusive fans should be worried.

Starting next season, in cooperation with the International League against Racism and anti-Semitism (LICRA) and a group fighting violence and discrimination against LGBT people, the French league will distribute forms allowing spectators to report the sexist, homophobic or racist incident they witness.

“The LICRA will be able to start the appropriate judicial procedures,” Boy de la Tour said. “And it will also give a basis to work with to our disciplinary commission.”

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The French league previously struggled to identify the perpetrators of homophobic chants. With its new process, sanctions are expected to kick in.

According to Frederic Potier, the French government’s special representative on racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination, insults made in public places like stadiums can lead to large fines.

“If qualified as homophobic, they can be punished with a 22,500 euro ($25,000) fine and six months in prison,” Potier said.

Like with racist abuse, Boy de la Tour said referees are also entitled to stop games in case of homophobic insults targeting players. The league’s disciplinary commission can also hand point deductions for incidents involving gay discrimination.

The French league has increased its efforts against discrimination following a league match at the Parc des Princes this season between rivals Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille that was marred by homophobic chants by PSG fans. Sports minister Roxana Maracineanu attended the game and said afterward she was appalled, and would not take her children to the stadium.

Earlier this month, second-division club Lens was sanctioned by the French league after fans sang discriminatory chants targeting local rival Valenciennes, leading judicial authorities to open an investigation. Lens was fined 50,000 euros ($56,000) and the league’s disciplinary commission ordered a suspended one-match closure of a stand at the northern club’s stadium.

“Never had we seen such an important financial sanction,” Boy de la Tour said.

In addition to the clampdown on fans, Boy de la Tour also insists on the pedagogical work that needs to be done with supporters and players, who are often unaware of the true meaning of the insults they hear, or use. Thousands of leaflets will be distributed to coaches and players at academies across the country, while club supporters in charge of organizing dialogue with soccer authorities will receive a specific formation.

The campaign will officially be launched on May 17 during the International Day against Homophobia, when team captains, coaches and referees will wear a special rainbow armband at second-division matches. Their topflight counterparts will also take part during the 37th round of matches on May 18. A short movie will also be aired in stadiums and on social networks, with the slogan “Homo or Hetero, we all share the same shirt.”

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According to Yoann Lemaire, who made a documentary on homosexuality in soccer, players should also get more involved in the debate and take strong stands against discrimination. He said “99%” of the players he approached for his movie refused to speak.

“Even just to say that it would not be a problem to play alongside a gay player,” Lemaire said. “And when the player is OK to speak, their agents or clubs stop them from doing so to soften their communication. I know some very well-known PSG players who prefer not to speak, by fear of being stigmatized.”

France striker Antoine Griezmann is the only active star who agreed to feature in the movie.

“He was really sincere,” Lemaire said. “He understands it’s a touchy issue, but he told me that he would be proud to play with a guy daring to say publicly that he is gay.”

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