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Reader question: Is the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis really a no-go zone?

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The Local ([email protected])
Reader question: Is the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis really a no-go zone?
Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP

Chaos and violence at the Champions League final on Saturday has put the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis - home of the Stade de France - back into the spotlight. We answer your questions about the area.

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Speaking before the Champions League final on Saturday, French ex-footballer Thierry Henry told an American news channel "The final is not in Paris, it's in Saint-Denis. Trust me, you don't want to be in Saint-Denis".

 

Among other documented problems at the final between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid was the presence of gangs of "local" youths, who mugged and attacked fans, particularly after the match, as many have testified to in shocking accounts by Spanish and Liverpool fans.

Many others attempted to force their way into the stadium to see the final.

So was Henry right?

Well Henry (who was born in one of Paris' outer suburbs, about 40km from Saint-Denis) was right about one thing, technically the stadium is not in Paris.

The city of Paris is only the area inside the périphérique ringroad, outside that is the inner suburbs - known as the petite couronne - which are split into three départements - Seine-Saint-Denis to the north and east, Val-de-Marne to the south and east and Hauts-de-Seine to the west. 

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This is useful for fans to know, because it affects the type of ticket you buy for public transport.

Are events at the stadium always like this?

Stade de France is the French national stadium, it hosts many football and rugby events at both club and international level and is also a popular concert venue. During the pandemic it became a giant vaccine centre.

The causes of the chaos at the Champions League final are still under investigation by UEFA but one thing that we can say is that the events around Saturday's match appear very particular to this final. Most sports fixtures and concerts at the stadium pass off without incident or at least without major problems reported in the media.

The stadium held the French cup final just a week before the Champions League final without any major incidents reported around access to the stadium or attacks by local gangs on fans. Fans of the two teams Nantes and Nice did however clash in other parts of Paris.

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The last time there was a major security incident at the stadium was the terror attack in November 2015. That night, three bombers wearing suicide belts tried but failed to gain access to the stadium and blew themselves up outside, leaving one dead.

Following that attack security was heightened massively for the Euro 2016 tournament. 

So what was Henry referring to? 

The commune of Saint-Denis is part of the département (county) of Seine-Saint-Denis, which is one of France's poorest areas. Although within the département there are some lovely small towns that are popular with Parisian commuters, there are also areas that have high levels of poverty and crime.

Due to its reputation the whole département is often referred to pejoratively in France as just "93" or Quatre-vingt-treize or Neuf trois which is the the administrative number of the département.  

READ ALSO No, Paris suburbs are not all deprived and crime-ridden

The area is also racially mixed and many immigrants, asylum seekers and undocumented workers end up here.

The most recent crime figures from Saint-Denis show 14,000 crimes recorded per year, among the 11,000 inhabitants - the majority of which (48.6 percent) were theft and vandalism, followed by violence against the person (30 percent), economic crime (8 percent) and other crime and minor offences such as speeding (13 percent).

This makes the crime rate in Saint-Denis roughly double the French average, but comparable to other urban areas in the country.

Crime in the town is acknowledged by its mayor Mathieu Hanotin.

"Yes, we have problems of delinquency and crime in Saint-Denis. Every day I fight against the problems of delinquency," Hanotin said after the final.

"I have doubled the number of municipal police, we are going to triple them by the end of next year compared to when I arrived in charge two years ago. There is no question about that."

 

 

The areas of France that have the highest recorded crime are - unsurprisingly - the biggest cities. The highest crime areas in order are; Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis, Bouches-du-Rhone (which contains Marseille), Rhône (which includes Lyon) and Hauts-de-Seine (another Paris suburb). 

If you remember the riots from 2005, those largely took place in Seine-Saint-Denis département and there are frequent conflicts between locals and police - with high-profile cases where police have been accused of heavy-handedness and racism.

So who were the local youths causing trouble and why were they there?

Well according to extreme-right pundit (and convicted racist) Eric Zemmour they are simply racaille - a racially loaded word that translates as 'scum'.

The mayor of Saint-Denis says these youths were not just from the town but from all over the Paris region who came to the Stade de France and the surrounding area specifically because of the Champions League final.

They came because they saw easy pickings, Hanotin believes.

"What you have to realise is that this event is so attractive for everyone. For the fans [excluding the 40,000 tickets given to Liverpool and Real Madrid football clubs] there were 7,000 tickets on sale and 1 million requests.

"It was also attractive for delinquents, and it became the gathering point for delinquents from across the Île-de-France region who saw the good deal because, in a nutshell, it smelled of money - if you don't mind me saying so - and who came to rob the Madrid supporters and the English too. And there we didn't have a police force that was adapted to this phenomenon".

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In total there were 105 arrests made linked to the Champions League final, of which 29 were made in the immediate vicinity of the stadium. Of those 29, more than half were British including seven Brits arrested for attempting to enter the stadium without a ticket.

The remaining 77 arrests took place in the surrounding Seine-Saint-Denis area and did not involve any UK nationals. Full details of those arrests have not been released but French media report that most of them are local to the Seine-Saint-Denis area.

In total 48 people were remanded in custody for offences of theft, violence or selling fake tickets. None of those arrested for having a fake ticket or trying to get into the stadium were kept in custody.

So avoid Saint-Denis at all costs?

The Madrid and Liverpool fans caught up in the chaos and post-match violence will understandably have deep reservations about ever returning to the area again in future.

But in ordinary circumstances there's no need to avoid the centre of Saint-Denis. There are certain parts of the Seine-Saint-Denis département where it is not wise for visitors to venture, but Saint-Denis isn't one of them - at least not the centre and not during the day.

It's home to a major tourist site - the Basilica de Saint-Denis which holds the remains of Saint Denis, who is the patron saint of both France and Paris and was martyred around the second century AD. Over 2 million people visited the Basilica in 2019.

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The Basilica is not the only cultural site in the town, there’s also the Cité de Cinema and the Museum of Art and History.

Inhabitants wait in front of the Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis during a campaign visit of French President and La Republique en Marche (LREM) party candidate for re-election at the "Place Victor Hugo" in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, on April 21, 2022. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

READ ALSO 5 things to know about the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis

And as visitors and inhabitants will attest there are plenty of pleasant bars, restaurants and café terraces in the centre of the town.

As we mentioned above though, it does have some problems with crime, so visitors need to take care of their personal belongings.

Fans driving to the stadium who have expensive cars would be best advised to use stadium parking (or park elsewhere and get public transport to the ground) rather than leave them in town.

Future

If you take RER B from Charles de Gaulle airport into Paris you will pass through Saint-Denis and one of the things you will certainly notice is the large number of building sites in the area.

This is related to the 2024 Paris Olympics, as Saint-Denis has been chosen to house the athletes village. New accommodation is being built and once the games are over this will become housing for locals, since there is a housing shortage in the area.

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There's also a new Aquatics centre being built in Saint-Denis, while the Paris 2024 organising committee has its offices in the commune.

The Stade de France will of course play a prominent role in the Games, hosting events including athletics (although not the opening ceremony, which will be staged in the open air along the River Seine to allow up to 600,000 spectators to attend.)

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