In 25 years in France, I’ve often found myself battling against the media tide to defend my adopted country from inaccurate criticism. What on earth can I say about events at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis during Saturday’s Champions League final?
Four days after the event the French government persists in blaming the principal victims – the supporters of Liverpool FC. Yes, there clearly were some fake tickets in circulation, maybe as many as 2,800, but nothing approaching the “mass, industrial fraud” alleged by the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin.
As a supporter of Manchester United for nearly 70 years, I’m programmed to regard Liverpool fans as the hereditary enemy. From what I can see, they behaved with exemplary patience and calm on Saturday, despite being penned into dangerously dense spaces by administrative incompetence; attacked by gangs of thugs from nearby estates; and casually tear-gassed by police who failed to guide or protect them.
Who is really to blame?
Darmanin says that it was the 30,000 to 40,000 extra Liverpool fans who turned up with false tickets or no ticket. French media investigations have proved in the last few days that there is a fantasy or a red-herring. In other words, a lie.
Darmanin also blames the fact that a rail strike closed one of the two RER stations that Liverpool fans could have used. He omits to mention that the police parked trucks under an autoroute underpass to narrow the already dangerously crowded remaining access to what is always a very awkward stadium for 80,000 people to reach.
The French police blame poor planning by UEFA, the European football body. UEFA blames the French government and the French police. Several investigations are under way.
I wasn’t in Saint-Denis for the European Champions League Final on Saturday. I have to rely on what may turn out to be partial or inaccurate accounts.
But the overwhelming weight of evidence suggests that the French police lost control of events; took decisions which made a dangerous situation worse; and then attacked some of innocent victims with tear gas, either accidentally or deliberately. Police leaders, in the shape of Interior Minister Darmanin and the Paris police prefect, Didier Lallement, then tried to cover up their failings by blaming the Liverpool fans.
The story of the Stade de France is many things but it is, at least partially, a story of deeply-ingrained police incompetence.
French police are not trained in “crowd control”. They are trained to “maintain public order”. They are poor at reacting to fast-moving events because they have rigid command structures. Junior officers are not trained to make their own judgements; more senior officers are slow to change plans which were laid down by even more senior officers.
Sebastian Roché, of Science Po Grenoble, is one of the foremost academic experts on French policing.
He told Le Monde this week: “French police are not expected to talk to the public. They are not trained to send information up the line to their superiors to change plans according to developments on the ground. They are poor at explaining to the public what they are doing and why.”
As a result, he said, French police tend to regard large crowds as single entities. If something goes wrong, if public order is threatened, the whole crowd is treated, or mistreated, in the same way. Hence the disturbing footage of French police officers casually resorting to pepper sprays and tear gas against peaceful Liverpool fans on Saturday night.
In other words, France’s police problem is a structural problem; it’s not just a question of occasional excesses or failings. This is the third time I have written about this issue in this column in the space of three years. Nothing much seems to change.
The former interior minister, Christophe Castaner, was forced out of that job in 2020 for several reasons. One of them was that he had lost the confidence of the police and gendarmerie. He was one of the few interior ministers in my time in France to dare to criticise the police publicly.
His successor, Gérald Darmanin, never makes that mistake. Hence in part, I believe, his unjustified criticism of Liverpool fans.
Unlike in Britain or Germany, the French police and gendarmeries are national forces under national, political control.
They regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as protectors of the state and the government in power, rather than as servants of the people. Sebastian Roché says that they are “wired to be insulated from society and to respond only to the executive”.
France does have a problem with public order. Politics goes rapidly to the street. Successive French presidents and governments know that they need the police to protect them. They have therefore tended to protect and flatter the police (but not always to fund or train them properly).
After a couple of serious police excesses in 2021, President Macron instructed Darmanin to improve relations between police and public and to ensure that the French police were, in future, “irreproachable”. A conference was called. Not much has been heard since.
On Saturday, France’s persistent policing problem was broadcast live to the world. The rugby world cup is in France next year and the Olympics are in Paris in 2024 – with the Stade de France in Saint-Denis as the main stadium.
It is time for the French government to stop protecting the police. It is, after all, the police who are supposed to protect us.