- France to deploy 90,000 security personnel for tournament
- Snags at match last weekend point to security shortcomings
If Saturday night’s soccer match between Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille was any indication, the Euro 2016 tournament that kicks off in two weeks will be a nightmare for French security forces already worn down by last year’s terrorist attacks and ongoing political protests.
Despite a 2-meter (6 1/2-foot) wall encircling the stadium and checkpoints for fans, some of the 80,000 supporters of the Paris and Marseille professional teams managed to smuggle forbidden items into the Stade de France, including smoke grenades, helmets and firecrackers. Thirty people were arrested after police used tear gas.
“I was told that certain smoke bombs were smuggled inside sandwiches,” said Jacques Lambert, the head of the organizing committee for the Euro 2016. “Instead of putting a sausage, they stuck a smoke bomb inside the bread. If that means we need to open everyone’s sandwich, our task becomes particularly complicated.”
The rowdiness emphasizes the magnitude of the job facing authorities to ensure the safety of the 2.5 million spectators at the monthlong Euro competition beginning June 10. The tournament is the second-biggest in soccer, after the World Cup, and it’s expanded this year to 24 countries from 16 four years ago. National teams will play 51 matches in 10 cities around France.
About 90,000 security personnel will be deployed, including 13,000 private contractors, the Interior Ministry said. Some of the 10,000 soldiers who have been guarding key sites since last year’s attacks also will help protect the games, focusing on transport infrastructure.
The French state and local authorities are in charge of overall safety for the tournament. European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, which organizes the competition, is spending 34 million euros ($38 million) to guarantee the security of stadiums, training centers and hotels, while France will spend millions more. How well France succeeds in safeguarding the games may affect Paris’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics.
France is still in a state of emergency imposed after terrorists killed 130 people in and around the capital Nov. 13, shooting at diners in cafes, attacking a concert hall and detonating bombs at the Stade de France outside Paris during a match between France and Germany. Camouflage-clad soldiers wielding automatic weapons are a common sight around central Paris, its train stations and tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, and the president wields extraordinary powers to uphold law and order.
A computer owned by a suspect in the March terrorist attacks in Brussels showed that the plotters were considering targeting the Euro tournament, Belgian prosecutors said.
The security challenge extends beyond the stadiums. Millions of supporters also will gather in 10 cities at official "fan zones," areas accessible for free where the games will be shown on gigantic screens. The largest is on the Champ de Mars, the park at the foot of the Eiffel tower, which will host as many as 92,000 people.
After the November attacks, the interior ministry decided to turn the zones into closed spaces, with systematic body searches, metal detectors and video surveillance. Last month, the government said it doubled the security budget for the zones to 24 million euros.
France is gearing up for the country’s largest international event since the World Cup in 1998 at a time when police and the military already are worn out from months of working under the state of emergency. The authorities also have had to deal with the COP21 conference on climate change in December, the flow of migrants and the presence of extremists in the ranks of protesters marching against a proposed labor law. A police car was set on fire during a May 18 protest in Paris.
“The Euro wouldn’t be an issue if it was the only event this year,” Christophe Rouget, a spokesman for police union SCSI, said in an interview. “But there has been an accumulation. Police forces have been postponing their holidays and this has an impact on their family life, on their morale and can have an impact on their jobs.”
The security plan for the Paris-Marseille game last week involved limited entrances open to the public to restrict the number of security checkpoints, causing a logjam of fans. The match wasn’t set up as a dry run for the Euro tournament, officials said.
“Even though this wasn’t a test game we need to draw lessons from it to ensure our setup is perfect,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters Wednesday.
In addition to tightening security to prevent people from smuggling in smoke bombs or weapons, another key change will be to ensure that fans can flow into and out of stadiums smoothly. “Otherwise there will be long queues which could turn into targets,” Cazeneuve said.
Fans know that increased searches now are just routine for big sporting events, said Alain Loisel of Normandie Foot, a fan club for the French national team. “Nowadays security and soccer go hand in hand,” he said. “You can’t turn up with your hands in your pockets.”
The risks associated with hooliganism -- the main security threat during the 1998 World Cup in France -- haven’t been forgotten amid the increased terror alert. New menaces such as possible drone attacks have also popped up. But the French government’s lips are sealed on this particular issue. “The effectiveness of certain measures put in place depends on me not saying a word about them,” Cazeneuve said.
Salim Toorabally, the 43-year-old security guard who foiled a bomber intent on detonating an explosive vest inside the Stade de France on Nov. 13, said he’s confident that all the necessary means are being deployed to host the Euro as safely as possible.
"I worked during the COP21, I worked during many games at the stadium and everything went well," he said during a phone interview. "Today I’m not afraid. I’m confident when I go to work."