France's Thuram invites immigrants to Italy match
PARIS, Sep 6 (Reuters) French soccer star Lilian Thuram has invited 80 homeless immigrants to the national team's match against Italy in Paris today.
The unusual move has struck a nerve as France has one of the world's most ethnically diverse soccer teams but remains deeply divided over immigration, notably after youths -- many of them descendants of immigrants -- rioted in poor suburbs last year.
''It's great that Thuram is taking us to the match tonight. It will show the French that we are still here,'' said Fidele Nitiema, a 35-year-old from Ivory Coast.
''The French soccer team reflects France,'' he said. ''We're all the same, no matter what skin colour we have.'' During this year's soccer World Cup, many immigrants said they felt frustrated that the country was praising France's multi-ethnic team on the field, but treated its immigrants like second-class citizens in daily life.
Zinedine Zidane, who retired this year, is the son of Algerian Kabyle immigrants. Like Thuram, striker Thierry Henry is also of West Indian origin while many others have African roots, including Patrick Vieira or Claude Makelele.
Thuram has previously attacked Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has pushed a tough immigration stance and is a conservative frontrunner for 2007 presidential polls, for imitating the policies of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Some on the left want Thuram to enter politics when his sports career is over.
Le Pen, known for his outspoken anti-immigrant stance, has criticised the team's racial make-up, saying there were too many ''players of colour''.
Sarkozy tightened immigration rules after the riots and has vowed to expel thousands of illegal foreigners this year.
About 4.9 million immigrants live in France, official data show.
Officials estimate 200,000 to 400,000 illegal foreigners live in the country.
REUTERS AY BS1759