23 November, 2009

The scent of dirty hands.

I'm a follower of football and other sports, but only in the sense that I pay attention when it becomes too big to ignore. Like when the French won the World Cup in 1998--what untrammeled joy!--and now. Thierry Henry is central today, as he was then, but for a different reason. This time around, it was his hand, as captain of the team, that blatantly nudged the ball along and pushed an under-performing France into the 2010 finals, pushing out the Irish. What empty words can he offer all his underage, football-playing fans? According to Henry, his behavior is the referee's responsibility: "Il y a main, mais je ne suis pas l'arbitre." (There was a hand, but I am not the referee.) There is a lot of money leaning on that hand of Henry's. According to the regional paper Le Midi Libre (which also published the cartoon above), 120 million euros go to TF1 to air the World Cup 2010; more than 20 million euros in sponsorship for the French soccer federation; not including a separate 42.6 million euro Nike contract; the employment of an estimated 14,000 people...and the brash coach the French love to hate, their own Raymond Domenech, receives 862,000 euros as a bonus for getting the team into the finals, and here's what he has to say:

"I do not understand why we are being portrayed as the guilty party. I didn't see it (the handball) at the time. After I watched it back, I can see it is a mistake by the referee. To me this is the game and not cheating. I do not understand why we are being asked to apologize.''

Just days after Henry's Helping Hand, we were all treated to a hastily convened conference in Germany where it was announced that profound and widespread corruption marked professional football leagues, from the minor to the Champions and European, with some 200 fixed matches in 2009 alone.

But it isn't just soccer or sports alone:

- from Jacques Bouille, the mayor of lush Cote d'Azur village St. Cyprien who committed suicide in his cell as he faced serious corruption/embezzlement charges (including but not limited to money laundering, bribery and abuse of public office, aggravated diversion of millions in public funds for personal gain, and forgery), to his deputy and chief of finance, Pierre Fontveille, who lasted just nine days as replacement mayor before being charged with a raft of his own corruption charges and placed in custody;

- from Dominique de Villepin's ongoing, less than clear Clearstream Affair (a.k.a. the French Watergate), in which he has been charged as having falsely accused then-presidential rival Nicolas Sarkozy of having paid bribes for a sale of warships to Taiwan, to the former president, formerly august Jacques Chirac, around whom swirl the endless will-they-or-won't-they-charge-him-with-corruption questions (he is accused of having falsified contracts to funnel millions of euros to political associates and friends while he was mayor of Paris);

- not to mention Charles Pasqua, who was interior minister under President Jacques Chirac, and was just sentenced to a year in prison, (with a further two years suspended) for arms-trafficking to the Angolan government in the 1990s.

The dirty hands seem to be everywhere in French politics as well.

In French business, more of the same: in 2007, former joint CEO of EADS (the aerospace corporation) Noël Forgeard was accused of insider trading (to the tune of 2.5 million euros profit for himself and 4.2 million for his children), and after having made 10,000 employees redundant after bad results, earned 8.5 million euros--for leaving the company. There's the 3.2 million euro payoff for the outgoing boss of car parts supplier Valeo VOLF.PA as it all the while benefits from state backing and prepares to cut 5,000 jobs. And there's Jérôme Kerviel, worthy of his own Wikipedia entry:

...(born January 11, 1977) Kerviel is a French trader who has been charged in theJanuary 2008 Société Générale trading loss incident, resulting in losses valued at approximately €4.9 billion. Société Générale characterises Kerviel as a rogue trader and claims Kerviel worked these trades alone, and without its authorization. Kerviel, in turn, told investigators that such practices are widespread and that getting a profit makes the hierarchy turn a blind eye.

Not to mention the parlous state of state subsidized business, where cartels and rule-bending are often par for the course. With table sugar, for example, you watch a small handful of French companies received 128.5 million euros of tax-supported funds. They are only part of a larger European sugar industry picture.

In such a bureaucratic society, with so many different ways to divert state money, the regular Joes also often find it acceptable, indeed normal, to play fast and loose with their own numbers in declaring taxes and benefits.

Where does one pin the responsibility, on the political elite? The business leaders? Our sports heroes? Society at large? How does one begin to effect change? Sometimes it's enough to wax nostalgic for some old-fashioned, high-minded Anglo-Saxon Protestant rectitude (but without the side-orders of hypocrisy and condescension that usually come with it).

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