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As France reacted to the aftermath of Saturday night’s chaotic Champions League final in Paris, one might think things couldn’t get any worse.

The biggest game in European club football had started 36 minutes late, while disastrous organization and security had resulted in arriving fans being tear-gassed by police and robbed by gangs of local youth while queuing for hours before the game Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris.

UEFA had already started the night before to dismiss its original claims that fans arriving late at the stadium were to blame for the problems, following criticism of French authorities and police, particularly from Britain.

And then, on Sunday evening, Saint-Etienne descended.

After losing on penalties in a play-off against Auxerre to seal their first relegation from Ligue 1 in 22 years, fans were furious Les Verts (The Greens) poured onto the pitch and fired 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 fans were injured, three of whom were taken to hospital. Two Auxerre players were also reportedly slightly injured, while Auxerre fans were also attacked after the game.

Just 24 hours after the chaos of the Champions League final, the scenes at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard not only ended a disastrous 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 the École Centrale de Lyon and specialist in French football fan culture.

“What they have in common is a security problem at football matches that has plagued France all season: there aren’t enough stewards, they aren’t properly trained and they don’t know how to deal with a crowd of fans.”

Disturbance

When French fans returned to stadiums behind closed doors last August after almost two years of pandemic-related matches, the first few months of the new season were marked by serious disorder from day one.

Olympique Marseille had suspended two away games – in Nice and Lyon – and then postponed them after Dimitri Payet was hit twice by bottles thrown from the crowd. In August, he threw back the bottle at Nice, leading to a pitch invasion and a mass brawl that saw a Nice fan handed a 12-month suspended prison sentence and a Marseille coach suspended for hitting an intruder.

On September 18, the Derby du Nord (North Derby) descended into chaos when Lens fans crossed the pitch at half-time to confront traveling Lille fans who had fired rockets into the home stand. A few days later on September 22, 16 Bordeaux fans were injured when their bus was attacked in Montpellier, Marseille and Angers fans exchanged blows on the field while Metz fans after a late win against Paris Saint-Germain that Playing field stormed – all in the same afternoon.

Things settled down after Christmas, but even Saint-Etienne’s play-off against Auxerre on Sunday was played with a closed grandstand after the club’s ‘Green Angels’ Ultras celebrated their 30th birthday with a massive fireworks display against Monaco in April .

“The excitement of fans returning to stadiums after the pandemic has certainly increased, but it hasn’t always been negative and it hasn’t been limited to France,” explains Hourcade, adding that he believes some fan and ultra groups have become more radical .

“There are increasing problems between fan groups and the managers of their clubs, who, according to the fans, do not care about the well-being of the club,” he told DW. “These are legitimate complaints and we see them across Europe, but sometimes it gets out of control and explodes, as we saw at Saint-Etienne.”

“An archaic police strategy”

For Ronan Évain, director of Football Supporters Europe (FSE) and fan of French club Nantes, the escalation in Saint-Etienne had more to do with specific local tensions between the club and fans that have been growing for years.

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

“In the beginning there is the illusion of traveling soccer fans and the assumption that they are hooligans,” he told DW. “The police on duty in Paris on Saturday were not dealing with the Liverpool supporters of 2022, they were dealing with the Liverpool supporters of 1980. The whole approach is driven by a perception that is no longer rooted in reality.”

In France, the default response to perceived threats from football fans is usually to ban them in advance from a mass travel ban to matches. The concept of “arrêté préfectoral” – a spontaneous ban by local police prefectures – is well known to French football fans, who often learn at short notice that they are banned from traveling to an away game.

“Since the beginning of the season, France has resumed its repressive police crackdown, imposing collective penalties and blanket travel bans,” says Evain. “[On Saturday] We saw a retreat into a repressive approach based on violence: a visible police presence, police cars everywhere, officers in helmets, a show of force.”

However, it appears to be little more than a show. On the contrary, the French approach of simply enacting collective bans has left its police forces singularly ill-prepared and inadequate to deal with large football gatherings.

“This is a country that is not capable of managing 50-100 away fans in the third division, let alone tens of thousands at the Champions League final,” says Evain.

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

“First, [collective punishments] are obviously unfair to fans who haven’t done anything wrong,” he says. “Second, it’s not effective: you can close a grandstand for a game, but the problem fans don’t get banned; You will come back.

“This practice of collective punishment also explains the action on Saturday in Paris. The police cannot differentiate between problematic people and those who are normal and calm. This is a serious problem.”

Government response ‘reminiscent of Hillsborough’

On Monday, seemingly ignoring mounting criticism and evidence, French Interior Minister Gerald Darminin doubled down on the authorities’ version, accusing “fraud on an industrial scale”, while Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera spoke of “30,000 to 40,000 people without tickets or with fake ones”. These claims have been flatly denied by journalists who witnessed the events first hand.

Liverpool fans display their Champions League final tickets through a gate

Thousands of Liverpool fans with legitimate tickets missed out, but the French government insists fakes were widespread

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

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

But he also criticizes the governing body of European football, saying: “All the risks involved in playing a game on the pitch Stade de France known: the problems with 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 monitoring professional football matches, Hourcade would like to see the country look abroad for inspiration.

“[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 fans,” he says Managing Football Fans.”

Some of those long-suffering French supporters clearly felt vindicated after Saturday night.

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

Edited by: Matt Pearson

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