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Rachel Marsden: Is Paris too delinquent to host the 2024 Olympic Games?

Tribune Content Agency logoTribune Content Agency 5/31/2022 Rachel Marsden, Tribune Content Agency
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, middle, passes two cards to Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, and Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, during the presentation and announcement ceremony of the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympic Games at the 131st IOC session in Lima, Peru, on September 13, 2017. © (Luis Camacho/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS) International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, middle, passes two cards to Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, and Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, during the presentation and announcement ceremony of the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympic Games at the 131st IOC session in Lima, Peru, on September 13, 2017.

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron fought hard to have the Union of European Football Associations final of the Champions League hosted in Paris when the prior venue of Saint Petersburg, Russia, was nixed when the fighting broke out between Ukraine and Russia. “For Macron, officials said, swiping the final from Russia was seen as a coup,” Politico reported on Feb. 25, as the league announced the change of venue to the Stade de France in the northern Parisian suburbs of Saint-Denis.

In the run-up to the May 28 event, trouble was already being foreshadowed. French professional football coach and former FIFA World Cup and UEFA gold top scoring medalist, Thierry Henry, told a CBS Sports broadcast on May 8, during a discussion about the upcoming championship: “Technically, the stadium is in Saint-Denis, not in Paris. Trust me, you don’t want to be in Saint-Denis. It’s not the same as Paris.”

The city’s mayor fired back at Henry on Facebook. “The contempt with which you have characterized our city is not acceptable,” Mayor Mathieu Hanotin said. “The situation in the suburbs today is the result of a concentration of poverty on the outskirts of Paris and an abandonment of the State for working-class neighborhoods (…) This failure of public policies should not be a pretext for ridicule from well-known personalities.”

Even the town’s own mayor is hardly denying that there’s a major security problem. Because to do so would be virtually impossible, or else suggest a major disconnect with reality so dire that it would warrant psychological assessment.

Saint-Denis is routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in France. According to Le Figaro newspaper, Saint-Denis has a personal property and theft rate that more than doubles the national average, and a personal violence rate over three times higher. The city was also the site of a major police raid for harboring the alleged perpetrators of the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, Stade de France, and the sidewalk patios of several restaurants and cafes, which killed 130 people and injured another 413.

So it’s hardly surprising that when supporters of Real Madrid and Liverpool F.C. descended on Saint-Denis’ Stade de France for game day, visitors reported insecurity problems. Jason McAteer, former Liverpool player, told the British press that his wife was mugged and his son was attacked. Both the league and French authorities blamed Liverpool fans, some of whom had been suckered into buying fake tickets, for causing a bottleneck at the entry that sparked further unrest, with videos posted to social media showing young fans and locals exploiting the situation by hopping over the gates to gain free entry.

Rachel Marsden wearing a dress shirt and tie © Provided by Tribune Content Agency Rachel Marsden

As police lost control of the situation, unable to separate the troublemakers from families with legitimate tickets, they simply opened fire indiscriminately on the crowd with tear gas. Meanwhile, the kickoff was delayed by a puzzlingly precise 36 minutes to 9:36 p.m. local time, while other attendees grappled with a local transit strike of transport workers whose unions had declared their intention to deliberately target the event with their job action.

British culture minister Nadine Dorries has since demanded that the league probe French police actions during the incident. The least shocked by the series of incidents were the French people, who have grown accustomed to the routine tear gassing of protests in the capital as a means of basic crowd control. The Yellow Vest protests, which dominated the streets of Paris and other French cities for months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, resulted in the loss of a couple dozen eyes and five hands, attributed by victims to police action.

Meanwhile, tourists on the ritzy Champs-Elysees have returned home in the past few years with memories of being doused with tear gas. So clearly little has changed with respect to French authorities’ ability to manage a potent mix of growing organic insecurity coupled with the chaos of spontaneous crowds. Which raises the question of how France will manage the 2024 Paris summer Olympics, particularly with the athletes’ village and several of the slated sporting events set to be based in Saint-Denis.

Last year, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo evoked in Paris Match magazine the future “legacy” of the games, “first of all for Seine-Saint-Denis, the youngest, most cosmopolitan department in France and which needed this trust granted.” Well, “cosmopolitan” is one way to put it. Another way is that if you fail to place external barriers or standards to protect your country, you’ll eventually find yourself erecting them everywhere internally — or else dealing with chaos borne of your delusion.

Speaking of fantasies, recent former Socialist Party presidential candidate Hidalgo also spearheaded the concept of the open-air opening ceremonies for the 2024 Games. For the first time ever, according to the Paris 2024 website, the opening ceremonies “will be held in the heart of the city, along its main artery, the Seine.” While admittedly creative, it nonetheless smacks of a security nightmare. But that’s generally what you tend to get when you replace pragmatic realism with ideologically fueled fantasy.

(Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and host of independently produced talk shows in French and English. Her website can be found at http://www.rachelmarsden.com.)

©2022 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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