PARIS (AP) — Facing increasing pressure in the wake of a blackmail scandal that is tarnishing his name, France striker Karim Benzema has finally decided to speak out.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls joined in the criticism of Benzema on Tuesday, saying he "has no place" on the national team, days after Mathieu Valbuena gave a hard-hitting interview in which he spoke of feeling betrayed by his France teammate.
Benzema will respond in an interview to be aired on French national news on Wednesday, broadcaster TF1 said.
Benzema is one of France's key players as it gets ready to host the 2016 European Championship, but the Real Madrid forward faces charges of conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape.
He is suspected of having played an active role in pressuring Valbuena in a case that continues to both damage Benzema's reputation and cast severe doubt on his international future.
"A great athlete should be exemplary," Valls told French radio Europe 1 on Tuesday. "If he is not, he has no place within the France team."
Last Friday, Valbuena gave an interview to newspaper Le Monde, in which he spoke at length about Benzema's attempts to pressure him.
"There comes a time when you can't defend the indefensible. I wouldn't even do that to my worst enemy," Valbuena told Le Monde. "I can only feel very, very, very let down and now realize that my relationship with Karim wasn't as sincere as he may claim."
The investigation, centering on wiretap evidence, started when Valbuena took legal action after being contacted by a man claiming to possess an incriminating sex tape.
In a case that could drag on for months, Benzema's involvement has not yet been fully determined. But investigators who charged him in October believe he was approached by a childhood friend to act as an intermediary and convince Valbuena to deal directly with the blackmailers.
"If a minister was handed preliminary charges, he would no longer be part of the government," Valls said.
Benzema denies any wrongdoing but his arguments were undermined last week when Valbuena gave his first interview. Hours later, the French football federation joined the case as plaintiff.
"There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes," Valls said. "They wear the blue jersey, the colors of France, which are so important in these moments."
Benzema's laywer hit back at Valls.
"So what's the prime minister doing about presumption of innocence?" Alain Jakubowicz said on RTL radio. "This case is being played out in the media in an absolutely scandalous way, prompting the prime minister to express himself on a case he knows absolutely nothing about. Who will it be tomorrow? The president of France?"
Preliminary charges under French law mean magistrates have strong reason to believe a crime was committed, and allow time for further investigation. The charges may later be dropped. In 2010, Benzema was handed preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute but was acquitted in a case that lasted more than three years and tarnished his reputation.
Benzema's image was further dented last month when he spat on the pitch after the national anthem was played at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium in a tribute to the 130 fatalities of the Paris attacks ahead of a match against Barcelona.
Benzema's action ignited a wave of criticism on social media, prompting his lawyers to issue a statement in which they condemned "the scandalous interpretation" of the incident. Benzema, who has 27 international goals, had posted several messages in support of the victims in the days that followed the attacks.
Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez has given Benzema his full backing.
"I consider Benzema to be an exemplary football player and teammate. On a personal level, he is a sensational guy and he has our support," Benitez said. "I support Karim as a person and I am thrilled with Benzema the player."
Club president Florentino Perez also publicly backed Benzema in a statement published on Madrid's website on Nov. 5.