French police braced for World Cup weekend amid terrorism alert
More than 12,000 police officers and 1,600 soldiers will be mobilised in Paris over the weekend as huge crowds gather to watch the France-Croatia World Cup final after the traditional Bastille Day military parade and celebrations.
With France still on alert over the threat of terrorist attacks, security forces across the country are braced for a weekend of street gatherings, beginning with Saturday’s national holiday commemorating the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, a turning point in the French Revolution.
For the World Cup final, up to 90,000 supporters are expected to gather in a fan zone under the Eiffel Tower. If France wins, more than a million people are expected to flock to Paris’s most famous avenue, the Champs-Élysées.
The Paris police chief, Michel Delpuech, said “a real terrorist threat” existed for such large public gatherings in France. Cars will be banned from a large area of central Paris and underground car parks will be cleared, in part due to the risk of vehicles being used in terrorist attacks.
Saturday will mark the two-year anniversary of the Nice truck attack, when a man killed 86 people and injured 450 by driving a lorry into crowds watching Bastille Day fireworks along city’s seafront.
Police are also focusing on preventing drunk football fans driving into the area around the Champs-Élysées, endangering the crowd.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on Champs-Élysées to celebrate France’s semi-final result this week. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, a dozen people threw projectiles at police who responded with teargas. In central Nice, as crowds watched the semi-final outside bars, a moment of panic by a confused crowd led to several injuries.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, will fly to Moscow to watch the final on Sunday, where he will also meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to discuss issues including Ukraine. The pro-European Macron said it was “very good news” to have a European final.
France is known for placing more political emphasis on football fixtures than its neighbours. In 1998, when France won the World Cup, the approval ratings of then unpopular rightwing president, Jacques Chirac, leapt and the ethnically diverse team was held up as the solution to the country’s race and discrimination issues.
But it is now accepted as folly to have expected the 1998 football team to fix France’s ills: a few years later the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had complained of too many black people in the team, made it to the final round of the 2002 French presidential election.
The French government has this week been cautious to avoid looking as if it was deliberately trying to score political points from football.
Approval ratings for the centrist, pro-business Macron have dipped in recent months, but the government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux brushed aside the question of using football fever to gain back approval.
“Making a connection between politics and sports would be a bad idea,” he said. “Do you really think that if there’s a happy result on Sunday night, the French people in difficulty, in poverty, will forget all their problems?”
However, France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, told French TV that football success would be good for economic growth by bolstering the “self-confidence” of the nation.