By Rebecca Rosman
PARIS, Sept 27 (Openly) - From leafleting fans to introducing fines and even jail time, France is cracking down on homophobia in football. But when a referee stopped play over anti-gay chants, fans cried foul.
Mehdi Mokhtari's decision to halt a match between second-league teams AS Nancy and Le Mans last month marked the first time a referee had used the sanction over homophobia as part of an unprecedented clampdown by football authorities.
A week later, another match had to be halted, triggering a row that has pitted some French football fans against the sport's governing body and the national government.
"Stopping the matches for every homophobic song or every banner is ineffective," said French football supporter Cedric Ferreira after angry fans unfurled banners from the stands with anti-gay slurs that explicitly referenced the crackdown.
"We saw how fans responded to this the first time: with even more homophobic chants and banners. I think we have to prioritize education from now on to prevent this, and I think we should punish only those who are chanting."
Halting matches was just one of a series of measures aimed at tackling homophobia in French football, which LGBT+ rights campaigners say is a longstanding problem.
"This has been going on for years," Bertrand Lambert, founder of the inclusive French football club PanamBoyz and Girlz United, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The difference is only now are people starting to wake up to the fact that homophobia exists in this sport. The fact that something is finally being done about it is the result of years of work from rights groups."
France is not alone - penalties for homophobic language are starting to take effect in stadiums around the world as football federations come under pressure from governments and anti-discrimination groups.
At a recent British match, Bristol Rovers issued an apology after fans were heard hurling homophobic insults at rival team Brighton & Hove Albion.
In June, Brazil's football federation was fined $15,000 following homophobic chants from fans during the host nation's opening game against Bolivia.
In France the trigger was when sports minister Roxana Maracineanu expressed shock earlier this year at abuse she witnessed during a match, saying she would not want her children to attend.
President Emmanuel Macron later echoed the sentiment, saying as France hosted the Women's World Cup that the country needed to fight against homophobia and racism throughout society.
"Should we accept it in our stadiums? Of course not," he said.
France legalised same-sex marriage in 2013, after a bitter and divisive debate in which some former conservative members of Macron's current left-and-right government opposed the legislation.
The reported number of homophobic incidents in France increased by 15% in the last year according to the gay rights charity SOS Homophobie.
FINES AND JAIL
Ahead of the new domestic season that started in August, referees were given the power to stop matches, in line with a new International Football Federation (FIFA) code to address racist or homophobic behaviour.
Anyone using homophobic language could face a fine of up to 22,500 euros ($25,000) and even jail time, and clubs were threatened with sanctions over fans' behaviour.
Authorities said pamphlets would be distributed at matches allowing spectators to anonymously report any homophobic, sexist or racist incidents.
A spokesman for the national supporters' group ANS said there had been no recent examples of racist or homophobic incidents that could justify stopping the game and that what he termed "strong language" was "just a part of the fan culture".
Even the head of the French Football Federation Noel Le Graet said matches should only be stopped for racist chanting, or if a fight broke out - and not in response to homophobic slogans - sparking fierce criticism.
Etienne Deshoulieres, a lawyer for the campaign group Stop Homophobie, said football was "one of the last areas in France where you find homophobic speech".
"It's not normal that you can go to a stadium and hear homophobic chants," said Deshoulieres.
Stop Homophobie is currently suing the French Football League (LFP) for failing to censure Paris Saint Germain when fans hurled homophobic insults during a match in March.
The group was not invited to a recent meeting between football authorities, LGBT+ rights groups and fans to discuss the fall-out over the new rules, in a sign of the tensions.
"I'm pretty sure that most fans want to have fun during a football match and they don't want to hear hate speech or homophobic insults," said Deshoulieres.
"Therefore (enforcing the regulations) will be something positive for everyone." (Reporting by Rebecca Rosman @Rebs_Rosman; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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