Page last updated at 14:11 GMT, Saturday, 21 November 2009

French hand-wringing over dubious win

By Henri Astier
BBC News

Poster of French football player Thierry Henry outside his club, FC Barcelona, highlighting his apology over the handball in the game against Ireland
Henry was first to apologise over his handball

For a nation not particularly known for its moral qualms - it once hailed a head-butting footballer as a hero - the French feel surprisingly chastened about their questionable qualification for next year's World Cup.

Reactions to Thierry Henry's handball, which led to the goal that sent the national team to the South African finals at the expense of the hapless Irish, have ranged from embarrassment to outrage.

The incident in Wednesday's game has been commented on in newspapers, on websites, and in cafes up and down France.

It has even become an affair of state, with politicians weighing in. President Nicolas Sarkozy felt obliged to tell Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen that he felt sorry for his people.

In an online poll for Le Monde, almost two-thirds of respondents agreed that the handball "discredits France's qualification".

Le Parisien newspaper summarised the national mood: "The handball of Henry has brought a decisive contribution to the theme 'being French is being ashamed of one's national team'."

In the leading sports newspaper L'Equipe, former France international Emmanuel Petit wrote that there was "nothing glorious" about the outcome, and that France should keep a "low profile".

National crisis

Former Manchester United hero Eric Cantona was even more outspoken in his indictment.

We are all Irish
Jacques Attali

"What shocked me most was that at the end of the match, in front of the television cameras, this player [Henry] went and sat down next to an Irish player to console him," Cantona thundered.

"If I'd been Irish, he wouldn't have remained on the field for three seconds."

Cantona also launched a stinging attack on national manager Raymond Domenech, calling him "the worst coach in French football since Louis XVI".

Historical analogies have been wielded by several commentators.

Jacques Attali, a former aide to the late President Francois Mitterrand, wrote on a website: "We are all Irish" - echoing a famous 2001 headline in Le Monde expressing solidarity with 9/11 victims: "We are all Americans".

One minister spoke of "cowardly relief" following the dubious qualification - a phrase used after the 1938 Munich agreement signed by Hitler and Western allies.

Sticking up for les Bleus

The crisis is reverberating across France's political spectrum.

Philippe de Villiers, who leads the conservative Movement for France, called on Mr Domenech to issue a "public apology" to the Irish.

And Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit said: "You had to have a pretty strong stomach to support France after a game like that."

"In an ideal world the game should be replayed," rued centrist leader Francois Bayrou. "But the world is not yet ideal."

Of course, Henry and his teammates have their defenders.

The French version of the online magazine Slate argues that those wallowing in the current "masochistic" guilt-fest are displaying "their ignorance of football".

No doubt many fans also feel the remorse is overdone, and in due course Gallic pride will surge again.

But for moment, the French cockerel is not crowing very loudly.

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