French football police under the spotlight | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW

On Sunday, as France reacted to the fallout from Saturday night’s chaotic Champions League final in Paris, one could be forgiven for thinking things couldn’t get any worse.

Europe’s biggest club football game kicked off 36 minutes late as dire organization and security led to visiting supporters being gassed by police and robbed by gangs of local youths as they marched queue for hours in front of the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, just north of Paris.

UEFA had already started backtracking on their initial claims the night before that fans who arrived late at the stadium were responsible for the problems, as criticism from French authorities and police began to pour in, particularly from the UK. United.

And then, Sunday evening, Saint-Etienne was relegated.

After losing a penalty shootout in the play-off against Auxerre to seal a first relegation from Ligue 1 in 22 years, furious fans of The Greens (The Greens) poured onto the pitch and threw dozens of flares at their own players and coaches, who quickly tried to escape through the tunnel.

According to local authorities, 14 police officers and 17 supporters were injured, three of whom were taken to hospital. Two Auxerre players were also reportedly slightly injured while after the game visiting Auxerre supporters were also attacked.

Coming just 24 hours after the chaos of the Champions League final, the scenes at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard capped off not just a calamitous weekend in France, but a disastrous season in general for French football.

“Saint-Denis and Saint-Etienne were different incidents with different causes – but there is a connection,” says Nicolas Hourcade, a sociologist at Ecole Centrale de Lyon and a specialist in French football fan culture.

“What they have in common is a security problem around football matches, which has plagued France all season: there are not enough stewards, they are not trained enough, and they don’t know how to manage crowds of supporters.”

Disorder

When French fans returned to stadiums last August after nearly two years of pandemic-enforced games behind closed doors, the first few months of the new season were marred by serious unrest from day one.

Olympique de Marseille had two away games – in Nice and Lyon – suspended and then postponed after Dimitri Payet was hit twice by bottles thrown from the crowd. In Nice in August, he sent the bottle back, leading to a pitch invasion and a mass brawl in which a Nice supporter was given a 12-month suspended prison sentence and a Marseille coach banned for hitting a pitch invader .

On September 18, Derby du Nord descended into chaos when Lensois supporters ran across the pitch at half-time to confront traveling Lille supporters who had launched missiles into the home sections. A few days later, on September 22, 16 Bordeaux supporters were injured when their bus was attacked in Montpellier, Marseille and Angers supporters exchanged blows on the pitch, while Metz supporters took storm the pitch after a late winner against Paris Saint-Germain. the same afternoon.

Things calmed down after Christmas, but even Saint-Etienne’s qualifier against Auxerre on Sunday was played out with a closed stand after the club’s ‘Green Angels’ ultras celebrated their 30th anniversary with massive fireworks against Monaco in April.

“There has certainly been increased excitement among supporters returning to stadiums after the pandemic but it hasn’t always been negative and it hasn’t been limited to France,” Hourcade said, adding that, in his view, , some groups of supporters and ultras have become radicalized.

“There are growing problems between supporter groups and their club managers, who supporters believe do not have the club’s best interests at heart,” he told DW. “These are legitimate complaints, and we see them across Europe, but sometimes it gets out of control and explodes like we saw in Saint-Etienne.”

“An archaic police strategy”

For Ronan Evain, director of Football Supporters Europe (FSE) and fan of the French team Nantes, on the other hand, the escalation in Saint-Etienne was more linked to specific local tensions between club and supporters, which have since increased. years. .

Of course, no French clubs were involved in the Champions League final in Paris on Saturday, and Evain says those incidents are more closely linked to those in the first half of the season, which he attributes to police strategy. “archaic”.

“It all starts with the delusion surrounding the nature of traveling football fans and the assumption that they are hooligans,” he told DW. “For the police officers on duty in Paris on Saturday, they were not dealing with the Liverpool supporters of 2022, they were dealing with the Liverpool supporters of 1980. The whole process is dictated by a perception that is no longer rooted in reality .”

In France, the default response to the perceived threat posed by football fans is usually to ban them en masse from going to matches in the first place. The concept of a “prefectoral order” – a spontaneous ban imposed by local police headquarters is well known to French football fans, who often find they are banned from traveling to an away match at short notice.

“Since the start of the season, France has resumed its repressive policing approach, imposing collective sanctions and general travel bans,” says Evain. “[On Saturday] we saw a retreat into a repressive approach based on force: a visible police presence, police vans everywhere, helmeted officers, a show of force.

However, this appears to be little more than a show. On the contrary, the French approach of simply issuing collective bans has left its police forces particularly under-prepared and ill-suited to dealing with large football crowds.

“This is a country that is incapable of handling 50 to 100 away fans in the Third Division, let alone tens of thousands in the Champions League final,” says Evain.

Sociologist Hourcade agrees, adding that the whole approach is counterproductive.

“First of all, [collective punishments] are obviously unfair to the fans who have done nothing wrong,” he said. “Secondly, it’s not efficient: you can close a stand for a match, but problematic fans aren’t banned; they will come back.

“This practice of using collective punishment also explains Saturday’s move in Paris. The police are unable to distinguish between problematic people and those who are normal and calm. This is a serious problem.”

Government response ‘reminiscent of Hillsborough’

On Monday, seemingly unaware of the mounting criticism and evidence, French Interior Minister Gérald Darminin doubled down on authorities’ version of events and blamed “industry-scale fraud”, while Sports Minister Amélie Oudea-Castera spoke of “30,000 to 40,000 people without tickets or with fakes”. These claims were flatly dismissed by journalists who witnessed the events first hand.

Thousands of Liverpool fans with legitimate tickets went missing, but the French government insists counterfeits were commonplace

“The response is reminiscent of that of the UK government after the Hillsborough disaster [which resulted in the deaths of 97 Liverpool supporters in 1989] – and not just because of the Liverpool supporters’ involvement,” says FSE’s Evain. “There was no attempt to apologize to the supporters, but rather to dehumanize and blame them.”

In response to Saturday’s incidents, UEFA have launched a formal investigation into what went wrong, which Evain hails as a “step in the right direction”.

But he also criticizes European football’s governing body, saying: “All the risks of putting on a game at Stade de France were known: the problems of the access roads, the difficulty of ensuring adequate security, the problems with the local population. But obviously they have other priorities.”

As for France’s approach to policing professional football matches, Hourcade would like to see the country seek inspiration abroad.

“[They should] follow the example of England and Germany and recognize that football is an important political issue that requires a real political approach involving local authorities, police, clubs and supporters,” he said. “As it stands, France doesn’t have a coherent plan to deal with football fans.”

Some of those long-suffering French supporters clearly felt vindicated in the aftermath of Saturday night.

During a women’s match between Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon on Sunday, which saw Lyon clinch the title with a 1-0 win, PSG supporters unfurled a banner addressed to police and local prefectures, reading: ” Now the whole world has seen your incompetence.”

Edited by: Matt Pearson

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