The French security strategy has failed fans at Euro 2016 – fingers crossed that a real threat doesn’t materialise

Police in France have failed miserably in dealing with relatively mild disturbances on the fringes of the football. Let’s hope they’re not forced to deal with anything more sinister

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 June, 2016, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 10:27am

Much of the build-up to the start of Euro 2016 quite understandably focused on the major undertaking the French authorities had on their hands during the tournament.

For days beforehand, when fever pitch for the carnival should have been reaching full fervour the rather more sobering issues of security checks, police numbers, and alcohol-free zones dominated the headlines.

Not the build-up to a party fans would have hoped for, but wholly justifiable in light of the terrible events of November 13, especially since one of the attacks had specifically targeted a football stadium on match day.

Yet, this only serves to make it all the more incredible that there have been such significant lapses in security surrounding the tournament in the first two weeks. Both inside the stadia and out.

Rarely has a match passed off so far without the spectacle of a flare in the crowd. Granted, this is not the most terrifying prospect when considered in isolation, but as they are prohibited by Uefa it rightly raises questions about the effectiveness of security checks at the stadiums. If it’s possible to smuggle in a flare, how difficult is it to carry in a knife?

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Geoff Pearson is a senior lecturer at Manchester University and has extensively researched and written about the policing of football matches. He was present in Marseille during the first week of the tournament and experienced first hand the scenes of violence between English and Russian fans.

Incredibly, when so much has been made of ensuring people’s safety during Euro 2016, he told the Post that he found it difficult to think of how the French authorities could possibly have handled policing and security measures any worse than they did in Marseille.

“Security in the stadium was actually worse than it had been at France in 1998,” Pearson said. “I was able to walk in after a very cursory search. I could have smuggled in 10 flares if I’d wanted to. Security at the stadium was very poor.

“There was no metal detector. I was wearing shorts, which were bulging with spare batteries, cameras and my dictaphone. I also had eye drops to deal with the tear gas. I had lots of things in my pockets and was basically just patted down the side of my torso to the waist.”

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By far the most alarming security lapse inside the stadiums and one which could have had far more serious consequences was the orchestrated assault that Russian fans launched on England fans during their group B match.

After Russia had equalised towards the end of the game, a group of thugs in balaclavas began a seemingly planned charge across the Stade Velodrome causing panicked English fans to flee clambering over fences, women and children.

Match stewards were helpless, police presence was minimal, and the separation in a purported ‘neutral zone’, where fans of both teams were divided by a piece of tarpaulin, was wholly inadequate.

With a reputation for robust policing, there were fears ahead of the tournament about the French authorities’ ability to cope with any potential disorder while on a high terror alert, especially after the dreadful scenes of violence at the World Cup in France back in 1998. All too often, ‘heavy-handed’ is a phrase lent to their style of policing football fans outside of stadiums.

Pearson says there was no demonstrable strategy in dealing with disturbances in Marseille, where running battles between sets of supporters waged in the streets of the port town overshadowed the football on the opening days of the tournament.

“The French strategy was to stand apart from the crowd and when minor incidents occurred to respond with overwhelming force using tear gas and – on the first night – rubber bullets to disperse the entire crowd, which obviously caught up a lot of peole who had done nothing wrong and escalated the disorder,” he said.

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“I didn’t see any evidence to suggest that French police were policing this any different to how they did the World Cup in 1998 – they used the exact same strategies. It is proven that those strategies lead to an increased level of mass disorder.”

Now, after a series of deportations and fast-track custodial sentences handed down by French courts, and with the main protagonists of the violence packed off home after a chastening group B campaign, disturbances around stadiums appear to have died down. However, police are still on full alert.

There was also the farcical case of Russian supporters’ chief Alexander Shprygin, who has strong links to a right-wing movement in his home country and was ejected from France for his involvement in the Marseille violence, showing up in Toulouse brazenly waving his country’s flag days later at Russia’s match with Wales. His boast that he made his way back to France via “an unusual route under cover of night” was as shocking as it was disturbing in a county where there is currently a heightened terror threat.

France’s handling of the safety of supporters so far has been found well lacking. The hope now is that their task is not compounded by a major threat as the tournament approaches its climax.