(Editor’s note: This is a piece from Emmanuel Lainé, who is a Gooner living in England but originally from France. He follows French football closely and is a guest writer here on 7amkickoff for all things Ligue Un. You can follow him on twitter @triboKing. Enjoy!)
This season of Ligue 1 has been interesting for many reasons and many would not have predicted the race for relegation. A legendary club like Bordeaux being relegated to Ligue 2, something which has not happened to them since being relegated following the debts accumulated under their previous President Claude Bez. Bordeaux is as closely linked to Ligue 1 as it can be, and them coming down was definitely a blow in a championship which is a little fragile.
Adding to the above, May 29th was the final of the playoff between Auxerre and Saint Etienne. On paper, two clubs with an immense history in the French League. Think about it, Saint Etienne (the “Nottingham Forrest” of L1) and Auxerre (which found its greatest success under the infamous Guy Roux in the 90’s), both clubs battling for a spot in the first division. This game was supposed to be a celebration of football history and it was not. St. Etienne ended the game losing on penalty after a game of football which was as boring as it can be. But what followed is what will remain in people’s mind. Once again, a game of Ligue 1 was marred with violence, smoke bombs thrown towards the director’s stand, players escaping the enraged fans rushing at them and fans scrambling for their safety. This, following the most recent events from the Champion’s League Final, feels all too common in France these days. The season of Ligue 1 was a good one from a football perspective and one to forget from a fan experience perspective.
So why are we where we are right now? Hooliganism and football violence in France is not something new. In the 80’s the football stadiums were often associated with a desire to express violence within the remit of the stadium and/or in the street. Growing up in France in the 80’s, I do recall vividly the fact that we often referred to the violence in the stadium as a product of young English low class fanbase expressing their extreme views through street fights. I have to be honest here, I am not sufficiently informed about the history of violence in England to discuss it with confidence, so I will stop there. But for me the disinformation which I grew up with has clearly tainted my views for years. Even now, when I saw the shambles during the UCL final, my eyes firmly focused on these English fans who surely were the reasons behind the police reacting the way they did. Dig deeper and the truth is often not what the social media is trying to paint for you.
Back in the days of being a student at Uni, I used to be relatively close to an avid fan of Toulouse FC. Outside of the perimeter of the stadium he was someone I would call a decent human being, interested in martial arts and science. Nothing about him would have demonstrated an attitude towards football which was (and still is) so alien to me. Every Thursday night, it was a tradition to meet as a group of friends and engage into highly competitive competition of FIFA on PlayStation (a very typical evening in the life of a French student, glass of wine, cheeses and FIFA). One evening, we spoke about our various experiences as football fan and without asking particularly any details he decided to share some of the photos he took during all the various games that he went to as a fan. What shocked me at first is that none of the photos were actually taken into the stadium… Here is a photo a of a Marseille’s fan on the floor just before he was lynched by my mates, here a photo of the Roma’s fans advancing towards us like the Roman army before engaging into street fight… it kept on going. All his football related memories were linked to fighting, none of them were actually linked to his experience as a fan into the stadium. To me that was so bizarre because I have always associated football to the pleasure of being part of a unit, shouting and singing at your team, encouraging them to break the opponents down and to bring home the victory. For my friend, that was the complete opposite. He used to express that his football buzz would occur just before a brawl between fans, if his group of fighters were victorious or not, it did not really make much a difference. The minutes before the fights and the fight itself was what was most rewarding. I could not see it, but with the advantage and being a little less naïve than I was back in the days, my mate was an actual hooligan at its worst. I mean, I have always been told that hooliganism was a product of the English crowd, so how could I have been that wrong? Hindsight is a great thing and looking back, I could not see the signs of extremism views in French football. I was also shielded from it with a complete lack of social media; indeed, information was far less accessible back then.
I spent more time recently looking back at the football of the 80’s in France and one thing that jumped at me is that the stadiums were far more politicised back then. Often the birth of the Ultra groups was associated as pure form hooliganism, which is a way too simplistic to explain this Ultra movement. Ultras and hooligans have had a very blurry relationship in the 80’s where violence may end up being a common theme but the reason behind it was quite obviously different. Where the hooligans used the club solely as a medium to enter into a violent relationship with another violent fanbase, the Ultras were the die-hard fans, mainly created as an expression of an extreme passion for the club where your sole purpose is to follow your team everywhere it goes. Violence was mainly seen as form of expressing their emotional response to the game, often taking on the players and or the opposition at a time of disappointment.
One club I used to follow in the late 80’s and 90’s was PSG. PSG is actually one of the best examples amplifying the divisive relationship between a club and its Ultras. One of the most infamous of them were the Kop de Boulogne (KOB). KOB became the dominant force in Paris (often recruiting its member by means of advertising openly their right-wing views in the stands). To be fair, the clubs allowed them to develop freely mainly because these Ultras would fill-in the empty seats and bring the atmosphere the club was lacking (indeed the lack of fans in the stadium was a massive problem for PSG in the 80’s). The KOB was an all-white right-wing group and extremely vocal. They grew in popularity in the early 90’s but their racists view always bothered the club, the players and the rest of the fanbase. In the early 90’s another Ultra group (Virage Auteuil) was created. Left wing and fiercely anti-racist, these Ultras provided a legitimate counterweight to the KOB and some harmony was then found in Paris in the 90’s. Both stands would provide entertainment via flares, smoke bombs and songs and while Auteuil was favoured by the club and the players, the KOB was the dominant voice by far. These two Ultras groups worked together to create the current Motto “Ici c’est Paris”. Their relationship was far from perfect but it kind worked until the early 2000’s where racial tension existing between the two groups of Ultras, led Auteuil to reject more fiercely the KOB often showing banners during the game describing the KOB as the “has been” and Auteuil as the future of the club. This started a war between the two Ultras group, where unlike the hooligans fighting other clubs factions, the PSG found itself embroiled into a war between its own fans! Many more events led to the dismantlement of these two Ultras group in Paris until the fatal day when one of the most prominent member of the KOB Yann Lorence was killed by suspected Auteuil Ultras (Yann Lorence was killed after a harsh lynching 2 hours before a PSG-OM game – note that the Marseille fans did not make the trip at the time). While the Hooliganism could not care less about the identity of a team, the Ultras would use this sense of identity to the extreme.
Evidently, PSG was not alone in this wave of Ultras but it was one probably one of the most extreme. I recall being a kid, following PSG but avoiding the stadium at all costs due to it being deemed too dangerous (never walk around the stadium before or after a game, avoid the area at all costs). PSG in the 2010’s (QSI helping) has changed entirely the face of the club and Ligue 1 became far more accessible to its fans. Actually, a lot of the reform in the membership system did not allow the old members of these Ultra groups to seat with each other. Many left the club and decided to never come back! And we thought this would be the end of it…
Hooliganism in France is not dead but typically right now it is found under the form of small independent groups with more or less linkage to the clubs or its Ultras. On the other hand we have the growth of a new wave of Ultras which purpose is to communicate more deeply with the club and avoid violence at all costs. Often these new Ultras do not allow any independent groups to join them, that allows for the message to be controlled. Strasbourg is a perfect example how a club can successfully communicate with his fans, even the most ardent of Ultras. The club and its Ultras have worked closely ensuring a reasonable definition of what is allowed during the games, providing the fans time and space to be an integral part of the club’s life. And over the last few years, I think it worked fine.
As usual, I digress… So coming back to the original purpose of this paper.
The 2021/2022 season was one of the seasons I was the most excited about. On paper, the clubs had done their homework, the talent was there, the coaches clearly wanted to play a more expansive type of football and I think it showed on the pitch. This season, the football played in France was good, actual good football. It was also a season post Covid, the return of the fans to the stadium. Everything was there for it to be a success… And the start could not have been worse. Right at the beginning of the season, a resurgence of violence marred the Ligue 1, and what was seen at the time as a blip post Covid, lasted for month and month to finally culminate in what we saw on the 29th of May in Saint Etienne. Here is a not exhaustive list of the various events which I wish I never got to see.
- Montpellier-Marseille (8th August 2021). Valentin Rongier was injured by a flying bottle hitting him on the face. The game was subsequently stopped due to projectiles thrown from one stand to another. The game finally resumed and Montpellier was ordered not to allow any fans in any of the stands behind the goals for three home games.
- Nice-Marseille (22 August 2021). Whilst winning the game 1-0 following a goal from Dolberg, a fan from the stand next to the corner flag threw a bottle at Payet who was at the time preparing for a corner kick. Payet threw the bottle back at the stand and hell broke loose. Pitch invasion, fight between the players (Guendouzi right in the middle of it of course), fight between both staff and fans. The game was finally abandoned at the request of Marseille. The LFP insisted that the game was to be played again but this time behind closed doors. In addition to the rematch: Nice was also penalised with one point deduction.
- Lens-Lille (18th September 2021). Whilst the League thought that the sanctions against both Marseille and Nice would have calmed down the situation, it created an even more volatile situation. The Ultras from both side (Lille and Lens) decided to invade the pitch and engage into fights at half time. Lens was given two games behind closed door while Lille away fans were prevented to travel to any away games until the end of the season.
- Angers-Marseille (22nd September 2021). Towards the end of Marseille’s 0-0 draw with Angers, away fans invaded the pitch during a brawl with home supporters. The League sanctioned both club with one suspended point deduction
- Montpellier-Bordeaux (22nd September 2021). In Montpellier, Bordeaux’s bus was stoned by a group of Montpellier fans. There followed a fight between the fans which led to 16 people suffering minor injuries.
- Saint Etienne-Angers (22nd October 2021). The game was delayed following a large numbers of smoke bombs thrown onto the pitch by the ASSE fans. The protest was mainly directed at the coach Claude Puel (who they wanted out) and the directorship of the ASSE club.
- OM-PSG (24th October 2021). Projectiles thrown towards the PSG players, followed by numerous fights in the streets. The league ordered Marseille to play its next game behind closed doors.
- OL-OM (21st November 2021). Payet hit by the bottle thrown from the stand. After long discussions, the game is finally abandoned. The League gives Lyon one point deduction and the game ordered to be replayed behind closed doors.
- Coupe de France Paris FC-OL (17th December 2021). The game is interrupted following smoke bombs and projectiles being sent from one stand to another. The videos were horrendous with families doing their best to escape the fireworks being thrown at them. The sanction from the league was to eliminate both clubs from the French Cup.
- Players stuck at the stadium. On the 20th March, about 200 Ultras gathered at the Bordeaux Stadium following a yet another defeat. They blocked the exit and ordered the club to meet with them. The stand off lasted for 15 minutes until it naturally calmed down.
- Brest-Nantes (10th April 2022). The game was interrupted for about 15 minutes following projectiles and smoke bomb thrown on the pitch. A few pitch invasions were kept under control but not without tension.
- St.Etienne-Monaco (22nd April 2022). The game was interrupted at the 66th minute following the release of smoke bombs and fireworks in the stadium. The Ultra group Green Angels tried to force their way into the stadium 2 hours before the start of the game, engaging with the police.
- St.Etienne-Auxerre (29th May 2022). The end of a long series. Saint-Etienne were relegated from Ligue 1 after losing a play-off against Auxerre in a penalty shoot-out. The defeat sparked a pitch invasion by angry Etienne fans, with many hurling flares at the director’s stand and towards the players’ tunnel. Police armed with shields and batons used tear gas to disperse supporters.
Looking back at the above list, I could not believe the number of events which led to the most recent events in France. Both the playoff finals and the UCL issues have in common a complete absence from the government and the French football authorities to deal with the situation in an appropriate manner. They are not even reactive anymore, they are in complete denial which is far more dangerous. As usual, the blame is often the same, with the UCL the issues were the LFC fans and their fake tickets and during the Ligue 1 season the issue were with the fans and more often than none the Ultras. For the last 15 years, France has had one of the most repressive policies surrounding the management of football events. Looking at the number for this season, Ligue 1 is:
- 11 Games behind closed doors (only one due to Covid)
- 35 entire stands closed to the public (21 suspended sentence)
- 24 away ends closed to the public (5 suspended sentence)
- 129 Decrees from the Prefecture forbidding or limiting the away fans to travel to the games
The number of Prefecture decrees have increased since the 2015 season which was the record high following the terrorist attacks in Paris. At that time, the fear of people gathering in a crowd was so high that the Prefecture learnt to deal with this fear by forbidding social events where the gathering of people was deemed too high. As a fan, you could just not travel across the border of your department and follow your football team. Since then, the situation calmed down in France and from the 233 decrees sanctioned in 2015/2016, the number dropped well below 100 in the following years (this was also associated by a desire from the various stakeholders to engage in sufficient dialogue with views to limit the numbers of sanctions to a minimum). Then in 2022 Covid became a thing for the stadium to close their doors to their fans and to finally reopen properly at the start of the season 21/22. The result was immediate, in less than a year, as of May 2022, the numbers of decrees have cropped up well above 100 (129 to be correct and rising) and according to the ANS (Association Nationale Des Supporters) many of them have probably not being registered against these numbers. So why has it gone so wrong?
According to the government, the fault is of course the supporters’. These herds of Ultras/hooligans going to the stadium for the sole purpose of destroying the enjoyment of everyone else. You just have to look at the response from our French Interior Minister blaming the English fans for the shambles at the Stade de France (for the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool). This claim was destroyed nearly as quickly as it was uttered and made an absolute farce of the way the French government and the football authorities have responded to crowd gathering and football in general. I still have nightmare of a LFC fan, hands in his pocket, waiting calmy to enter the stadium while being gassed by one of our armed policemen. Nathalie Iannetta, Sport Director of Radio France, claimed that deaths were avoided because of how calm the LFC fans responded to the shambles of that UCL night in France. These fans should be applauded and not finger pointed.
Being a football fan in France in becoming harder and harder. I have often said that France is a weird place in terms of its relationship with football. We love it as much as we hate it. On one side we applaud the champions of 98, on the other side, we easily point the finger at their skin colours and salaries. Football has always had this sense of societal fabric which is quite difficult to dissociate from. Being a fan in France means that you may be prevented to act like one. The fans from Nantes were prevented to show their club colours in Nantes ahead of the French Cup game against Bastia (if you were found in Nantes wearing a short or a scarf, you would have been fined by the police). Indeed, the Prefecture decided that wearing a home shirt would bring far too much risk and should be prevented. I mean how mad this is? Nowadays everything and anything is worth a decree from the Prefecture and if nothing changes quickly, I fear that this is a problem that will keep on growing (The Ligue has a list of games where the risk is deemed too great for the away fans to travel. If you are Clermont, no issue. If you are Marseille you’ll miss 8 games a season). I am not saying that we should not blame the fans, I know for sure that some of them have no place in a football stadium (during Lorient-Reims a Celtic Cross linked to the French Far Right movement was exposed as a banner. The cross was hastily removed but nonetheless this was unseen in France for years). Of course, the fans have a role to play, and most of the fan’s association would be more than happy to work with the clubs and the authorities to prevent these recurrent violent events. But instead of inviting them to the table, they are just ignored and more decrees are being released. According the ANS, the various events from the start of the season have given the authorities a support to the preventive framework they have put in place for years.
The fan’s associations in France and a wide range of the media following the Ligue1 are all pointing towards the same issue. By preventing fans from travelling, you completely lose the ability to deal with sports crowds. I think that was in Marseille where a banner was stating this specific point “If you keep preventing the fans from travelling to games, you will never be able to deal with European games”. The message is always the same, it is becoming impossible in France to gather in a crowd without being gassed. Forget about the burning tyres, France is now a place where pepper spray is the perfume of Spring. The institutions are blaming each other and act like the easiest solution to deal with a crowd is to prevent gathering. Since Covid, it feels that the reasonable attitude towards football games has gone down the drain. The efforts that were put in place since 2017 to ensure that both the fans and the rest of the stakeholders could meet and discuss ahead of games in order to define the most appropriate response to fan safety have been replaced by prevention, no discussion.
The clubs since Covid are struggling financially and they are incapable of recruiting the correct number of stewards which would not only help to contain the crowd but also assist the fans outside of the stadium. If you associate this to the complete dismantlement of the away ends in the stadium, the stewards find themselves having to deal with away fans scattered all over the stadium rather than focusing on one specific area. Same applies to the police. Would it be not easier to deal with one specific area of the stadium if the worst was to happen? Finally, they are also reluctant to invest in novel CCTV systems allowing the identification and prosecution of the troublemakers.
Covid could not have happened at a worst time for everyone. This associated with the social atmosphere in France where violence and racism appear to be on the up was a recipe for disaster. According to Nicolas Hourcade (Sociologist and specialised in supporterism science) we must draw the lessons from this season in prioritising to re-establish the dialogue between all the stakeholders According to him, the tension has increased for years, following health concerns, the lack of fans at the stadium for more than a year, the losses that the clubs have accumulated, their inability to recruit sufficient staff to deal with the crowd, the increasing pressure on the clubs and fans following the reduction of the number of clubs in Ligue 1 from 20 to 18, the Super League, the arrival of foreign investment funds etc… All of these make the fans feel that they are losing control over their clubs. If the club is now iunable to protect its own interest, it is the role of the fans and its Ultras to act upon it. The fans are more and more feeling like the guarantor the integrity of their clubs (For memory, in 2020, 300 OM fans invaded the training centre as a protest against the ownership and Jacques-Henri Eyraud). Fan pressure can work, the pressure from the PL fans on their clubs to ditch the Super League was successful. Rather than giving a voice to their fans, the French authorities are constantly reacting to these events using collective measures and rarely targets the most violent individuals. It is easier to target everyone than to mobilise the police and the judges to penalise the individuals.
The worst part of this discussion is that a system was put place in 2017 and it started to show some significant improvements. It was not perfect but it worked. At its heart a directive was put in place in order to create an environment where banning a fan from travelling to a football game would be the exception and not the norm. The politics seemed to be aligned with targeted prosecution also. In other words, everyone seemed to be on board. The INS (Instance Nationale du Supporterisme) was created in 2017 and its purpose was to: ”contribute to improving the dialogue and allow the stakeholders to reflect and to make proposals on the participation of supporters in the smooth running of competitions and the improvement of the way they are welcomed at these competitions”.
Starting from the 2017 season and beyond, the INS successfully allowed stakeholders to meet and discuss the most appropriate manner to ensure that the safety of all the fans would not be compromised (home and away, within the stadium walls and outside). Since Covid, the INS disappeared from the face of the Earth (the INS is a governmental body, the same government has called for greater dialogue and individual sanction, yet the most efficient body in place to allow this dialogue has completely been forgotten). Added to this, the DNLH (Division Nationale de la Lutte contre le Hooliganisme) does not operate anymore as a mediator between the Prefecture and the fanbase: DNHL is the body ensuring a fair assessment of the situation and appropriate response to ensure the safety of the fan, therefore relinquishing this responsibility to the Prefecture.
So, what will the future bring us? This is a really tough question and the response to the gassing of the fans during the Champion’s League final does not provide me with a lot of optimism for the future. It feels clear to me that the politicians have completely given up on accepting their part of the responsibility by their consistent and public fan bashing. Even better when the fans are from another country, right? Nowadays, the League is already talking about more stadium closure (no doubt St. Etienne will be sanctioned after the invasion of the pitch), bringing back barriers between the stadium and the fans depending on the risk factor of the game itself, forbidding the fans to bring bottles of water in the stands… All of these decisions are putting the fan in the centre of the responsibility. The Fan’s Association are calling for more dialogue, they want safe standing, they want the away end to be re-opened, they want to work with the club on safe areas for smoke bombs (if that’ll ever be safe?), but more than anything they are calling for the perpetrators to be banned for life rather than given some sort of suspended sentence. From a club perspective, it is clear that that they’ll need to follow the English system by investing into a greater level of Safety, CCTV allowing the authorities to investigate and prosecute accordingly.
The last two days in France have depressed me. We could be so much closer to finding a solution, but it is clear that the dialogue is broken between all the stakeholders. I am ashamed to hear what I have heard on the radio and the blame that the LFC fans have received. We have the JO coming to Paris and unless we learn our lessons from the UCL final, we will once again embarrass ourselves in front of millions of eyes looking at us.
I’ll finish by this quote from Nicolas Hourcade which I think summarises my thought well: ”We do not need to clean the stadium with a Kärcher but with a paint brush”.