Liverpool fan Mathilde Delamotte was stunned when police officers in riot gear started spraying tear gas at the crowd outside the Champions League final in Paris last Saturday. After all, it was French police who had funnelled supporters through narrow access points from the train station to the stadium, only to end up at a single entrance.
“We were stuck there and they attacked us,” said the 30-year-old Paris resident. She had never seen such disorganisation in dozens of football matches attended in the UK and Europe, she added.
The tactics of the French police have come under fire from Liverpool fans as well as security experts and opposition politicians who are sceptical about the government’s explanations, including the claims of the “industrial-scale” use of fake tickets, of what went wrong.
Despite the deployment of 6,800 police officers, overcrowding built up outside the gates. Thieves targeted fans, stealing phones, watches and other items. Police used tear gas in what they said was an effort to regain control. Uefa, European football’s governing body, on Friday issued a “sincere apology” to fans caught up in the “distressing events”.
Critics say the scenes showed the limitations of French policing culture — built on repression and the use of force but less suited to the lighter-touch, communication-oriented approach that academics say is a more effective way of managing big sports events.
“This was not a one-time thing,” said Sebastien Roché, a sociologist who specialises in police practices, of the incidents that marred the final. “It was emblematic of how the French police’s priority is maintaining public order, not keeping people safe or even preventing crimes.”
With France gearing up to host millions of sports fans for the Rugby World Cup in October next year and the Olympic Games in July 2024, the debate over whether the police will be prepared has now intensified.
Criticism of the police has become more frequent in France in recent years after high-profile incidents such as the beating of an unarmed black music producer in Paris and the accidental death of a man caused by police in Nantes who were trying to break up an outdoor rave.
But it was the police clampdown on the gilets jaunes protests, which began in 2018, that proved a turning point and prompted public criticism from organisations including Amnesty International, the UN and the Council of Europe. To contain those sometimes violent demonstrations police used military-style weapons and frequently deployed tear gas. Some 2,500 protesters were injured, as well as 1,800 officers.
Didier Lallement, a tough-talking police chief, was recruited to Paris in 2019 after having made his name cracking down on gilets jaunes in Bordeaux. He told police unions upon arrival: “You know my reputation, I’m even worse.”
Lallement oversaw security at the Champions League match, and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has called on him to quit. “That Lallement is still in his post means that his command style is politically approved by Macron’s government,” said Roché.
Interior minister Gérald Darmanin, who oversees the national police, rejected criticism that officers’ actions at the match were disproportionate. He argued there would have been deaths and more injuries had they not acted to break up the crowds.
Policing the area around the stadium has its own challenges. The Stade de France is in Saint-Denis, a poor neighbourhood on the northern edge of Paris with a high crime rate.
Stéphane Troussel, an elected official who heads the departmental council in Seine-Saint-Denis, said better preparation would be needed before other events to maintain order and prevent fans from being targeted by criminals. “We have held two successful Champions League finals here and many big concerts, and this is the first time we’ve had such a fiasco,” he said.
Both France’s government and Uefa have commissioned investigations into events before the match, which Real Madrid won 1-0. The Spanish club on Friday demanded explanations why some of their fans were also mistreated, and Liverpool has made a similar call.
“I’m not ready to blame the police tactics until we know more,” said Laurent Lafon, a senator from the centre-right Les Républicains who heads a parliamentary oversight committee for sports. “But the dysfunctions were serious and all the lessons must be learned.”
On Wednesday, Lafon and other senators grilled sports minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra and Darmanin, who acknowledged that some police officers had used tear gas indiscriminately contrary to policies. In one video widely shared on social media, an officer sprayed a supporter as he scanned his ticket at a turnstile.
But Darmanin said tear gas was the only tool the police had to disperse a crowd pressing dangerously against the stadium gates.
Ronan Evain, who heads a fan group called Football Supporters Europe and attended the match as a Uefa observer, said the situation should not have reached that point. “The French police are simply out of practice in dealing with such big football games,” he said.
Authorities frequently limit or ban fans from travelling to away games on security grounds, so police have lost skills in managing crowds and interacting with fans, Evain added. Unlike in Britain, French police had a tendency to see football fans as inherently threatening, he said.
Roché said French police have been wary of “de-escalation” techniques used at sporting events elsewhere in Europe because they see them as ineffective. They eschew tactics used widely in the UK and the Netherlands, he added, such as having trained communications officers deployed around stadiums to help fans or answer questions.
“The [French] model is to dissuade and awe the public, and success is judged by how many arrests were made — not whether people had a good time,” he said.
Outside the stadium last Saturday, Delamotte tried to ask the police for an explanation but said she was ignored. “The British police do not treat us like hooligans at every match. I just don’t understand why this happened.”