Thierry Henry’s ‘main de dieu’ (hand of God) has been the thorn in the side of French society since the World Cup qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and France a couple of weeks ago . As an Irishman living in France, I have been inundated with apologies and commiserations from French friends and colleagues. I must admit I have been quite moved by the sense of fairness and sympathy which French people have expressed towards Ireland. As it happens, Henry’s infamous hand ball has in fact coincided with a national debate about French identity.
The French have always been a nation given to introspection. It that insuperable question which became the title one of Gaugain’s masterpieces ‘ D'où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ?’ Where are we from, what are we and where are we going? Among the responses to the question of French identity, the values of human rights have come to the prominently fore. For the French, therefore, the French Revolution is a foundation stone of what it means to be French. But France has long ceased to be a revolutionary society. The May 68 riots were perhaps the last pathetic attempt to resuscitate French revolutionary consciousness, yet they amounted to little if nothing. In fact, French socialism died in May 68. Many of the 68ers would later prove to be among the greatest sell-outs and proselytisers in French history. The Trotskyist Lionel Jospin was one of the students in the 1968 riots is perhaps one of the most notable traitors of socialism. When France finally elected a socialist government under the stewardship of Francois Mitterand, himself a former collaborator with the Vishy regime during the Nazi occupation, the greatest privatisation programme in French history was launched. The Trotskyite dissembler Jospin called it ‘réalisme de gauche’ left-wing realism. George Orwell would have been proud of him!
Mitterand turned socialism on its head, sending military aircraft and warships to the Gulf to be used against the Iranian people in the days when Saddam Hussein was a ‘friend’ of the West. His conduct in Africa was typical French colonialism with a ‘human face’. The attitude of the French ‘socialist’ led coalition government during the nineteen eighties towards Africa’s most progressive leader Thomas Sankara is a case in point. In 1983 in the Republic of Upper Volta, Thomas Sankara took power a revolutionary coup d’etat. His programme was to educate, feed and house all citizens of the former French colony. He re- named the country Burkina Faso, land of the upright men.
Unlike Mitterand, Sankara didn’t just preach and waffle about socialism, he practised it. Unlike former Nazi collaborator Mitterand Sankara’s father faught in the French army against the Nazis during World War II. During Thomas Sankara’s short reign, female circumcision was banned, women were given full and equal rights to men, contraception was promoted and the country’s first supermarket was opened. But that wasn’t enough for Sankara. He sold the government’s fleet of Mercedes cars and replaced them with modest Renault 5s! He himself continued to live with his family in a poor mud cabin. Thomas Sankara promoted socialism,ecologism and feminism; he understood Africa’s problems and dedicated his life to solving them.
But the ‘socialist’ French government had always been less than enthusiastic about Sankara; he had been placed under arrest just in 1983 after a visit by Mitterand’s son Jean Christophe, the crook locals called ‘Papa m’as dit’ Daddy told me. In a state visit to Burkina Faso in 1984 President Mitterand warned Sankara that his socialism was going to far. In other words, France had many interests in the country which were threatened by Sankara’s reforms, such as the super rich French minority who lived in luxury from the labour of Burkina Faso’s poor. Sankara’s reforms could conflict with their priviledges. Such a threat to Burkina Faso’s plutocracy was a problem for the French ‘socialists’.
In 1987 Sankara was murdered in right-wing coup d’état lead by his friend Blaise Compaore. Many people in Burkina Faso suspected French involvement. It would be hard to blame them given the fact that subsequent French presidents have to this day greeted the murderer Compaore as a friend
It is the same old story of hypocrisy and greed. The French nation changed the world in 1789 and changed it again albeit briefly in the Paris commune of 1871. These events marked France’s claim to greatness. But where are the philosophers today? Where are the revolutionary ideas and who will implement them? What has become of this once great nation that no longer understands what it came from, who it is and where it is going?
We live in a world where the greatest liars and cheaters win the greatest prizes. It is a world of capital rights; human rights are irrelevant. In this sense Henry’s handball is symptomatic not only of the crisis in French identity. Rather, the handball is the symbol of our corrupt capitalist world. It is the hidden hand of the market ruthlessly sticking down all hope of fairness and justice, the hand that steals as it gives, the hand of treachery.