PARIS — Eric Cantona for president? For several tantalizing hours, the former Manchester United striker fooled French voters into thinking he would run for the country's top job before admitting that what he really wants is better housing for the needy.
The stunt exhibited his trademark unorthodoxy and media savvy, and got France's political class talking, briefly, about public housing.
But the method raised some eyebrows.
French newspaper Liberation released a letter on its website late Monday suggesting Cantona wanted to run for president. It was an appeal to mayors around France for 500 signatures of support "in the framework of the political debate that the country is involved in."
France holds presidential elections in April and May, and to get on the ballot, candidates must first gather signatures of 500 mayors.
For hours, French airwaves filled with debate by commentators and fans over a potential candidacy for the 45-year-old Cantona, considered one of United's greatest ever players.
Then early Tuesday, the same newspaper published an interview in which he explained that what he wants is for the real presidential candidates to support the Fondation Abbe Pierre, a respected foundation working to house the poor.
The foundation's director said the Cantona "campaign" was an intentional ruse aimed at capturing public attention.
"We told ourselves we needed an extra kick" for a petition urging presidential candidates to make housing a campaign priority, Patrick Doutreligne explained. The petition calls on the next president to regulate rent and property prices, build more public housing and other measures.
So, Doutreligne said, the foundation asked Cantona, a sometime actor who played himself in Ken Loach's 2009 film "Looking for Eric," to pretend to be a presidential candidate for a limited time, and then to announce that he was seeking support for better housing.
"He will not be a candidate," Doutreligne told The Associated Press.
In Tuesday's Liberation interview, Cantona criticized mayors for preferring to pay fines than to build the required amount of public housing in their towns and cities.
Cantona, who once called on people to empty their bank accounts in protest at the global financial crisis, called for a return to "humanism."
"A hospital doesn't have to be profitable. We don't live inside a company," he was quoted as saying.
Some French politicians criticized the stunt, though conceded that better public housing is needed.
Phone messages left for Cantona on Monday and Tuesday were not returned.
The former France international gained notoriety throughout his career for his nontraditional football demeanor, outspoken comments and sometimes wild antics.