Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thierry Henry's Handball Reveals Crisis in French National Identity

While FIFA's decision to ignore calls for video replay and the Irish Football Association's anger over Thierry Henry's handball are not entirely unexpected, the overwhelmingly negative reaction of the French public is. It points to a latent sense of national malaise, even a crisis in French national confidence.

Maradona, after scoring a goal directly off his hand in the 1986 World Cup, was heralded as a champion by his countrymen. His "Hand of God" was proof positive that he was the best soccer player Argentina had ever produced.

But the French have expressed shame and disgust in the wake of their recent victory. "It is embarrassing to win like that and I can't identify with a team that wins by cheating," wrote one reader of Le Parisien; "How can we cheer for overpaid cheaters who take advantage of our good faith?" asks another on the website of Libération.

The fortunes of France have, in recent years, paralleled those of their national soccer team. When France won the World Cup in 1998, prime minister Lionel Jospin pointed to the team, comprised of Blacks, Whites, and North Africans ("Black, Blanc, Beur") as proof that the country's system of racial assimilation was working. That team went on to win the European championship in 2000 (thanks in part to outstanding play by Thierry Henry). But after poor showings in the 2002 World Cup and the 2004 Euro, Parisian suburbs burned and Nicolas Sarkozy alienated minorities when he called rioting suburban youth "rabble."

In 2006 the French team once again reached the World Cup final. France lost on the heels of Zinedine Zidane's now infamous headbutt of Italian defender Marco Materazzi but they demonstrated virility, independence, and cleverness. Their Italian opponents had played an ugly game, preferring to keep their players back on defense, while the French side had pushed forward for the full 120 minutes, showcasing their creativity and panache.

Now, in the wake of a financial meltdown and political scandal, Henry, dubbed "Le Cheat" in Ireland, is being viewed as a symbol of France's decline. Former French president Jacques Chirac and his one-time prime minister Dominique de Villepin have both been in court this year for "handling" funds and information illegally. Another Chirac lieutenant, Alan Juppé, was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison for misusing public money. And Sarkozy's popularity has plummeted as the French no longer see him as the straight talking man-of-the-people they elected in 2007.

As one reader of Le Monde puts it: "It is not surprising that Sarkozy would play Pontius Pilate here [Sarkozy told reporters he would not turn the France-Ireland match into an affair of state]! He spends his time cheating the law; just look at the way he got his youngest son elected and how he got his eldest undeserved financial backing."

Mr. Henry's raised forearm can be seen as one more example of deception by people in power. No one filmed Mr. Chirac or Mr. Juppé handing out tax dollars to curry political favor; and the Clearstream affair that has embroiled Mr. de Villepin is so complicated that many have quit following it; even Sarkozy has faded to a gray state of irrelevance in the press. But Henry's offense was a straightforward act that everyone has now seen multiple times, from multiple angles, and in slow-motion.

Last year low-level analyst Jérôme Kerviel, who lost 4.9 billion euros at the investment bank Société Générale, was the scapegoat for French economic woes. The financial system performed poorly, Kerviel was caught cheating and bore the blame of an entire nation. This year it appears that Mr. Henry, captain of a team that played poorly but won thanks to his illegal move, will serve as scapegoat for a country mired in a state of mistrust, disillusionment, and national self-doubt.

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