Is it really safe to come to France for Euro 2016?

Thousands of football fans heading to France for Euro 2016 will be forgiven for asking themselves: Is it really safe to come? But fans should be reassured that they are more likely to be affected by more mundane, everyday French problems.

Is it really safe to come to France for Euro 2016?
All photos: AFP

The fact that over 16 million fans applied for tickets for Euro 2016 suggests there is no lack of appetite for this summer’s tournament in France that spans a month from June 10th to July 10th.

But after last year’s twin terror attacks in Paris and the bombings in Brussels, fans will no doubt have reservations about the risks of coming to France, particularly to Paris.

Reports that the real target of the Brussels bombers was the Euro 2016 tournament and the fact that stories are emerging of six Isis jihadists still at large in Europe will only heighten anxiety.

Deputy mayor of Paris Jean-François Martins told The Local the city was “prepared and determined”. He pointed out the fact the Stade de France bombers could not get inside the stadium on November 13th proves their security checks and systems work.

“We have been preparing for this for many years and that includes how to deal with the terror threat,” said Martins, before refusing to go into detail about the security operation, stressing it needs to remain confidential.

But no one can guarantee there's no risk.

“When it comes to terrorism in general, and given what has happened in recent months, there is clearly no zero risk around Euro 2016,” internal security expert Olivier Renaudie tells The Local.

While fans cannot possibly be given any guarantees, what they be sure of is that the security will be more extensive than anything mounted at a football tournament before.

“France will put more means into security than we’ve seen before,” said Renaudie.

The government intends to extend the state of emergency, in place since the night of the November attacks, until after the tournament, giving them extra powers of policing.

As well as the thousands of police, there will be the 10,000 soldiers already on the streets, extra CCTV cameras and thousands of private security guards on duty to protect and reassure the public. Extra border patrols are already in place, with thousands of people having been denied entry into France in recent months.

It even emerged this week that police in Paris were buying drones to boost their security arsenal during the tournament.

SAS Euro 2016, the tournament’s organizing committee, estimate that the cost of hosting the tournament will rise by 15 percent due to the bill for the extra security.

Some 900 security guards and stewards will be employed at each of the 51 matches. The teams themselves will be guarded by specialist counter-terrorist units.

Special filtration measures will be put in place outside the grounds to prevent those without tickets from getting near the stadiums.

Tough security measures will also be in place at fanzones in the host cities, which are though to be the most at risk.

While the troops and the police are mainly there to reassure the public, Renaudie said they will also act as a dissuasive element to those who might be thinking of carrying out an attack.

But the reality is that there are just so many potential “soft targets”.

“It’s not just the stadiums they will have to watch, but the city centres too, and the fanzones” said French terror expert Bernard-François Huyghe. “How can they protect so many people?”

Tournament organizers have already drawn up contingency plans in the event of an attack, which could see matches played behind closed doors or moved to other parts of the country at the last minute.

Chances of being in terror attack are tiny

French authorities have been eager to show the world that they are prepared for the worst, by staging numerous mock terror attacks at fanzones and in stadiums in the run up to the tournament.

However, the images of police wearing gas masks responding to mock chemical attack may have had the impact of scaring people rather than reassuring them.

“The mock operations send a message to the public that we are ready,” said Huyghe. 

Huyghe says terror group Isis would dearly love the “prestige” and notoriety that would come with carrying out an attack during Euro 2016, but equally the French government will be desperate to show the world France is a safe place.

There appears to be a lot at stake for France and for the fans themselves.

“Am I crazy for even thinking about coming?” one worried visitor from England asked The Local.

Terror expert Huyghe points out that the reality is that the chances of getting killed in a terror attack are still minute, even in France and even during a prestigious tournament.

“People have far more chance of being knocked over in the street,” he says.

“Some years ago in Paris there was a bomb on the Metro, but I got on a train half an hour later,” he said, adding that if people started giving in to their fears then “all life would simply stop”.

Another headache for organizers 

Given the mammoth security operation, the reality is that fans heading to France this summer are more likely to be affected by everyday French problems, like strikes, which could also prove a real headache for organizers.

Rail workers unions, who have staged crippling industrial action in recent weeks, have already threatened to target Euro 2016 if their demands are not met.

With thousands of fans travelling around the country to get to matches being held in all corners of France, the unions have spotted an opportunity to do what they do best – cause travel chaos.

Air France pilots did exactly that on the eve of the 1998 World Cup in France, leading to a ten-day strike which saw hundreds of flights cancelled.

And it’s not just SNCF train workers who could attempt to derail the smooth running of the tournament.

All is not well with Air France, where pilots continue to negotiate their working conditions as the company tries to cut costs. As we know from 1998 and the record strike during the summer of 2014, Air France pilots won’t think twice about industrial action if necessary.

Then there’s Ryanair’s best friends, the French air traffic controllers, they have been striking recently to highlight their plight – not enough staff and out-dated equipment, and they could easily schedule a strike for during the tournament.

Then there’s the ongoing protests against the labour reforms, which on Thursday will lead to 20 percent of flights cancelled at Orly airport and delays around the country. These look like rumbling on.

Then there are the notoriously grouchy French taxi drivers, who are unhappy with the government over the “unfair competition” from the likes of Uber.

Although no strikes are planned yet, these guys don’t take any prisoners and leave a city centre or an airport in gridlock as quickly as an Uber cab turns up at your home.

The problem for fans is that French strikers have proved over years that if they cause enough disruption they tend to get what they want and there’s no bigger opportunity to turn the screw than a month long football tournament.

But don’t let this put you off – to be fair, given the sale 2.5 million tickets, it doesn’t look like it has.

“We have 500 members of our supporters' association heading over to France and the only subject they are all talking about is the football,” Martin Prendergast from the London branch of Irish Football supporters association told The Local.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said the event can be “unifying” and there's no doubt it fans a real chance to express their solidarity and fraternity with France and Paris, if they can put aside their understandable fears.

In a message to fans deputy mayor of Paris, Jean-François Martins, told The Local: “Look at what has happened here since November. We have had the COP 21 conference, Fashion Week, the Paris Marathon, all of which held without incident.

“Look at how Parisians have got back to normal life after what they witnessed in November. They are back in the cafes and on the terraces. They have got  their confidence back and that's what we want to share with those who come.”

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Amnesty condemns ‘arbitrary’ detentions during protest in Paris

A slate of detentions carried out on December 12 during a Paris protest by tens of thousands of people against France's controversial security bill were "arbitrary", Amnesty International France said on Monday.

Amnesty condemns 'arbitrary' detentions during protest in Paris
Photo: AFP

Out of 142 people who were arrested, including 124 who were taken into custody, “nearly 80 percent faced no charges in the end”, a study by the French branch of the rights watchdog concluded.

A similar proportion of detainees to charges laid was seen in the “yellow vest” movement that peaked in late 2018 and early 2019, according to Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz.

AIF, which joined an umbrella group opposed to the security bill, said it had “legitimate concerns over the possibility that there were arbitrary arrests and other violations of human rights”.

The legislation, since scrapped, would have restricted publication with so-called malicious intent of photos of on-duty police officers, a move condemned as a curb on press freedom.

AIF's Anne-Sophie Simpere, the report's author, told AFP the December 12th protest march in central Paris did not see “notable violence”, adding: “Nothing seems to justify what happened in terms of arrests or charges.”

The report focused on police questioning, medical certificates and judicial documents in 35 cases of people who were held but not charged. Two were held for nearly five hours, while the other 33 were held overnight.

A heavy police contingent preceded the marchers and flanked them on both sides, preventing any of them from leaving the protest, AFP journalists reported at the time.

On the basis of witness testimony and video footage, Amnesty said arrests were not preceded by “audible warnings” and at moments when no “significant disorder” was noted in the march.

Alexis Baudelin, a lawyer who was taken into custody, told AFP: “I was surprised by the strategy… At each intersection, the security forces charged on non-violent demonstrators without reason or warning.”

The offensive tactic was aimed at preventing the formation of “Black Bloc” anarchist groups after two consecutive weekends of violent demos in Paris, the police said later.

Amnesty also pointed to “detentions based on vague laws”, notably one against “taking part in a group with the aim of planning violence”, cited in 25 of the cases studied.

In only two of the cases studied had the detainees been carrying objects that could justify suspicions of violent intent.

“It's a catch-all offence,” Simpere said. “You punish an act before it is committed.”

Such lack of precision can “unduly infringe on human rights”, the report said.

Lara Bellini, whose 16-year-old son was held for 20 hours before being released without charge, told AFP: “They (the police) told me he belonged to a malicious band. It was incomprehensible… My son is an activist, but he is in no way a violent person.”

In five of the cases, police used a March 2019 law to slap a ban on appearing in Paris for up to six months.

The ban amounts to “punishment without trial” without even the possibility of appeal, Amnesty said, calling on parliament to scrap the legislation.