The grandma was not prepared for it. She lifted one speckled, wizened hand to her face in surprise. From the other dropped a candy-striped shopping bag, an army of bread rolls spraying onto the empty platform around her. For a moment, only the sound of bouncing pastries. Then noise.
On the metro platform opposite to her, a motley crew of shaggy hair and stubbled faces. Hundreds of them. They sing gruffly, brandishing in the air a red and blue nylon flag and about forty smartphones. “Allez Paris!”
These are the chosen fans. The ones that Paris Saint-Germain’s acting Director of Security, Jean-Michel Ribes, has permitted to travel to Madrid as ambassadors of the PSG and Qatari brand abroad. These are also the last of PSG’s ultras. They belong to the Collectif Ultras Paris (CUP), the only supporters’ group tolerated by PSG’s President Nasser Al-Khelaîfi. But why does he indulge them? Because in October 2016 their leader, Romain Mabille, promised never to criticise the club’s Qatari owners nor to question the Gulf state’s geopolitics. Instead, it’s apolitical myopia. The CUP sing only about matters on the pitch.
Today, the CUP’s behaviour matters. A trip to the Bernabéu – that sacred cow of stadiums – is the footballing equivalent to a trip to Disneyland. Real Madrid, with its mythic history, is the reference point for any aspiring European superclub. Ninety minutes at the Bernabéu allows such clubs to turn a mirror unto themselves and chart their own progress. What do these fans want to see when they look in the mirror? They want to see a fan base that is respected in its own right – not derided as glory hunters, arrivistes of the Qatari era.
Accused of being fake fans, of supporting a team fuelled on petrodollars, what happens at this Madrid metro stop therefore matters deeply to these Parisian fans. They want to put on a display that proves their authenticity – that they too are ultras, not just happy-clappers of the Qatari Sports Investment (QSI) era.
Unfortunately, they appear not to have thought this through. They have chosen a platform where their only audience is five unsuspecting locals and a pastry-laden granny. Their black hoodies emblazoned with skulls look a bit 1990s, being either what a pretend ultra would wear to a fancy dress party or what you would buy for your daughter after she went on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Their songs follow the tunes of that engineered music stadiums put on when a team scores. The live videos they record suggest that the immediate affirmation they seek is that of YouTube subscribers rather than football fans.
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Their blandness is not surprising, however. It is the product of the stringent levels of control that PSG have exerted in tailoring their own support base.
Pacifying a Fan Base
Following QSI’s buy-out of the club in 2011, Nasser Al-Khelaîfi has overseen an administrative campaign to pacify the club’s supporter base. In recent years, the word pacify might be confused as a euphemism. What for? For blacklisting any fan who expresses an opinion that threatens PSG or QSI’s commercial interests.
On 5 May 2014, Yoann Seddik attended the PSG-Monaco match at the Parc des Princes as part of his season ticket at the club. As the match entered a lull, he started singing, “Season tickets too pricey, supporters angry.” Within three minutes he had been bustled from his seat by muscular stewards. The outcome? Seddik was presented with a banning order from the stadium.
Inspired by this incident, the news outlet Mediapart ran a small experiment. They wanted to see whether the club was also policing dissent on social media networks. Mediapart journalist and PSG season-ticket holder Guillaume Blanc uploaded a tweet with the hashtag #ShameOnPSG. In the tweet, he criticised club Al-Khelaîfi for his record on freedom of speech. Within three days, Blanc received a letter from PSG’s Director General in which he was threatened with legal proceedings.
PSG were not only keeping tabs on fans; they were keeping dossiers. In 2015, scandal erupted in France when it was leaked that PSG had worked with the Parisian police to illegally collect personal data on its supporters. Data points included individuals’ profession, income, previous participation in demonstrations, marital status, driving license details and vehicle registration.
Handmaidens of the State
Strikingly, the 2015 scandal is not the only occasion when PSG has joined forces with state organs in targeting fans. In 2013, a press release issued by Evian days prior to their home game against the Parisian club caused a political earthquake. Evian revealed that they had received not from PSG, but rather from the Ministry of the Interior itself, a list of 2,007 PSG fans who should be denied entry to the stadium for not “conforming to the values of PSG.” None of these 2007 individuals had ever even been cautioned for a football-related offence.
Rather, they had fallen victim to what quickly became known as the Boutonnet doctrine. The director of the Division for the Fight Against Hooliganism (DNLH), the Ministry of Interior body responsible for collating the blacklist, Antoine Boutonnet, established a low threshold for what constituted a hooligan. A hooligan was a person “in any way susceptible whatsoever to disturb the smooth running of a match.” By choosing a person’s potential susceptibilities, rather than their past behaviour as the operative factor in whether to blacklist them or not, Boutonnet gave himself and PSG a blank cheque to ban whoever they wanted.
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The exact nature of Boutonnet’s relationship with PSG soon became troubling. Photos leaked of Boutonnet attending PSG’s private trophy celebrations. Confirmation followed shortly thereafter that he was travelling with PSG to away fixtures to assist the club to deny entry to blacklisted fans.
Then, in February 2014, as PSG played away to Monaco, Boutonnet permitted PSG to deny entry to 100 fans who possessed valid tickets in their name. In doing so, he committed an illegal act in contravention of Article 40 of France’s Penal Code. The response? Boutonnet’s relationship with the club was condemned by the French judiciary in a Conseil d’État ruling later that year.
Nevertheless, Boutonnet continued his co-operation with the club. This is but symptomatic of what appears to be a revolving door policy between PSG and state officials. Many of Al-Khelaîfi’s right-hand men are former French policemen, whilst the latest candidate for PSG’s vacant Director of Security position was a political adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy during the latter’s presidency.
Conforming to PSG values
It remains unclear why QSI considered those 2007 blacklisted individuals not “to conform to the values of PSG.” Prior to the group’s purchase of the club, PSG certainly did have a number of violent far-right elements amongst their support base requiring attention. In 2006, following a match between PSG and Israeli side Maccabi Haifa, 250 anti-Semitic PSG ultras cornered a Haifa fan in a bar. Fearing that a public execution was to take place, a policeman intervened, fatally shooting Julien Quemener, a PSG fan.
Similarly, in March 2010, Yann Lorence, a member of the neo-fascist Boulogne Boys, was killed in a factional dispute between PSG ultras. It was for this very reason that, in the year prior to QSI investing in the club, then-PSG President Robin Leproux banned all ultra groups from the stadium. Such was the radical nature of these reforms that they soon assumed their own name: Le Plan Leproux.
What is more curious, however, is the extent to which QSI have expanded the Plan Leproux. Robin Leproux’s measures initially targeted only the 1,200 ultras present in the Boulogne and Auteil stands at the Parc. This was in recognition of the fact that the majority of fans in these stands had nothing to do with the ultras, preferring to be behind the goals for the cheaper ticketing pricing or atmosphere.
Under QSI, 13,000 fans from the Auteil and Boulogne stands were banned from attending PSG matches. In addition, ticket prices in these stands increased by 70 percent by the end of QSI’s first year in charge. This has inevitably raised suspicions that the new ownership might be charged with associating working-class supporters with hooliganism. Or at least that the Plan Leproux perhaps provided a convenient pretext through which the club could achieve the gentrification of its support.
Original Series | A World of Ultras
Respected journalists such as Jérome Latta of Le Monde have gone as far as to accuse QSI of socially engineering PSG’s support base. Nicolas Hourcade, France’s leading sociologist of sport, has accused the club of seeking a “pliable fanbase composed solely of consumers.”
Given the obscurity of QSI’s intentions, it is alarming that it has received nigh-on unconditional support from the French state for its actions. A pattern is developing in the relationship between PSG and successive French administrations. Each time PSG is engulfed in scandal, whether it be the blacklisting of fans in 2013 or allegations of breach of data protection in 2015, the state soon retroactively legalizes such behaviour.
Six days after the Conseil d’État prohibited PSG fans from blacklisting or collating dossiers on its supporters, the French Minister of Interior passed a statutory instrument so as to render these acts legal. A 2016 Act passed by the French legislature, somewhat misleadingly called ‘The Law reinforcing dialogue with supporters and the fight against hooligans’, now allows clubs to collect data on their fans.
But Why? Why have PSG found such a receptive audience amongst French politicians? Why have successive French administrations been so willing to deprive football fans of basic rights?
Football in a State of Emergency
An answer comes into view upon taking a look at the chronology of France’s legislative reforms in this area. The first wave of these reforms came in the mid-1990s. The 1993 Alliot-Marie Law allowed for the establishment of stadium bans of up to five years, while the 1995 Law Pasqua permitted video surveillance of suspected hooligans. They were passed into law under the the right-wing government of Édouard Balladur.
Balladur had won at the polls in 1992 after standing on a message of restoring national order, after several prominent terrorist threats to France in the preceding 12 months. Such threats intensified during Balladur’s time in office. In 1994, a member of the Armed Islamic Group unsuccessfully hijacked a plane with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower. In July 2015, a terrorist attack at the Paris RER station at Saint-Michel led to eight deaths. It was but the first of five terrorist attacks that would hit Paris by the end of the year.
This first wave of reforms, therefore, came at a time when the French public displayed an acute anxiety to all forms of extremism. During a state of emergency in which interior minister Charles Pasqua was pronouncing that the very future of France was at stake, the erosion of a few civil liberties could be overlooked. When PSG fans attacked and beat into a coma a riot police officer before their 1993 home match against Caen, football hooliganism became the latest iteration of the threat to public order in France.
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Football was a public order issue that politicians could ‘win’ on. If Pasqua had little control over the transnational threat posed by Algerian insurgent groups, it was rather more easy to control the delimited space of a football stadium. It is not surprising that he took political ownership of the issue, giving his name to second major legislative reform of 1995. Nor were Pasqua’s successors at the Ministry of the Interior blind to the political capital to be gained in this arena. A certain Nicolas Sarkozy was careful to cultivate his reputation on this issue during his time as Minister of the Interior prior to the 1998 World Cup.
The Second Wave: A War on Terror
Fast-forward to 2006 and Jacques Chirac’s administration had made the War on Terror its political centrepiece. With Dominique Villepin as Prime Minister, his government produced one of the most notable documents of the entire post 9/11 era. The 140 page ‘France in the face of terrorism’ white paper released by the French Diplomatic Service at the Quai D’Orsay in January 2006 provided a strategic blueprint of how France would maintain public order at home and abroad. For the radical nature of the proposals it offered, it has been ranked by historians as second only to George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy of 2002 for its importance in understanding the era.
With Sarkozy back at the Interior Ministry, 2006 was not but a year of strategic blueprints. Sarkozy oversaw the passing into statute of the ‘Law in the Fight Against Terrorism’, one described by CNIL, France’s state-backed national regulator of civil liberties, as ‘Liberticide’ (killing liberties). Its principal effect was to remove a range of administrative functions from judicial oversight.
It was in this context that the second wave of reforms to football came. As news broke on 23 November 2006 of the death of a PSG fan following his involvement in an anti-Semitic attack against an Israeli supporter, political discourses sharpened. Just as in 1995, hooliganism and terrorism had become intertwined; so too would they in 2006.
Except this time the association was made more exploit. It was in France’s 2006 ‘Law in the Fight Against Terrorism’ itself that a provision was made allowing for administrative stadium bans to be imposed on football fans. The difference between these bans and those imposed under the 1993 Alliot-Marie Law was that there was no right to appeal the new sanction. A supporter could not review their ban in the courts. Nor did the authorities have to provide evidence or an explanation for the punishment. Furthermore, football clubs were given the power to dissolve any supporter club that infringed their stadium rules. It was a power that would soon be exercised.
“Je Suis Charlie”
After the death of 90 concertgoers in Paris’ Bataclan venue and the killing of 40 others in the city’s neighbouring streets and cafés in November 2015, France has entered a permanent state of emergency. The state of emergency declared by President Hollande on the evening of the attacks has been extended already over six times. There appears to be no signs of it abating despite the coming to power of Emmanuel Macron.
With police resources stretched, it is a period in which there has been little political tolerance for the misdemeanours of football fans. The Hollande administration controversially permitted police the use flash-balls – handguns that fire rubber projectiles at the speed of regular ammunition – against fans in Montpellier, Strasbourg, Paris and Marseille in 2014. Hollande’s political discourse towards fans also carried a punch. His Interior Minister even went so far as to inform the Senate that what the country needed now “was a football without football supporters.”
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The principal irony of the 2016 ‘Law for Reinforcing Dialogue with Supporters and Fighting Hooliganism’ lies in its name. Drafted principally not by parliamentarians but by lawyers resident within the Ligue de Football Professional (LFP) and the Fédération Française de Football (FFF), the latter’s representatives failed to attend the French Senate when invited to discuss the law. When France’s main supporters’ representative body, the Conseil National des Supporters Français (CNSF), invited the head of both organisations to a fans’ forum on the law, they were faced with empty chairs.
Instead, the law grants administrative bodies unprecedented powers over the basic rights of French citizens. France’s Departmental and Regional Prefects are now allowed to restrain freedom of movement. The prefect of the Paris region can, for example, ban any resident of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais from entering his or her territory for a 24 hour period. Similarly, they can ban the travel of all away fans or that matches be played behind closed doors. The consequences have been staggering. In 2016 alone, 218 matches in France saw a prohibition on the attendance of away fans. This represented a 7,000 percent increase on the number of matches played without away fans in 2011/2012.
Perverse anecdotes abound. In 2016, in light of the upcoming match between Bastia and Lens, the Prefect of Corsica banned all residents of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais from visiting his island for 48 hours. Weeks later, he took the same action with regard to residents of Marseille. In January of this year, the LFP Commission of Discipline decided to close down entire sections of Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome for their match against Metz. The problem? The decision was taken at 11 o’clock at night on the evening before the game. Supporters who had already travelled were left stranded.
Unsurprisingly, France’s National Association of Supporters (ASN) has declared a campaign of civil disobedience. Faced with continued bans on away fans, local supporters seem set on purchasing tickets for their travelling counterparts in the home end. The recent Strasbourg-Bordeaux match saw ultras of both teams standing together in solidarity. Clubs across Europe are getting in on the act. Bayern Munich fans displayed an artwork in tribute to Strasbourg fans at their home match against Schalke. Torino and Florentina fans did the same in Italy.
A Bleak Future?
So can we expect a change in political tack anytime soon? Following the unexpected and tragic suicide of Antoine Boutonnet last November, calls have been heard for a détente with football fans. Boutonnet’s replacement at the DNLH, Antoine Mordacq, has admitted that reforms are needed. Similarly, Didier Quillot, the new president of the LFP, has declared himself to be against stadium bans and the prohibitions on away fans attending matches.
The key decision-makers, however, remain unmoved. Whilst the LFP has shifted the tone of its speech, it has not shifted the nature of its acts. With QSI owning not only PSG but beIN SPORTS, the television company that controls television rights to Ligue 1, the LFP knows not to bite the hand that feeds it. It has been very receptive to PSG complaints about freedom of expression in the past.
When Saint-Étienne fans displayed a banner criticising Qatar for its financing of terrorism, the club was presented with a heavy fine and a suspended stadium ban. When supporters of Strasbourg did the same a few weeks later, a complaint from beIN SPORTS to the LFP led to identical punishment being dealt out.
Beyond that, the Macron Presidency does not seem to have augured any change in state policy. Macron has refused to comment on the 2016 Lori Larrivé. If anything, repression looks et to continue under the new leader. In a recent edition of the French legal journal, Penal Law, one of Macron’s advisers has even written a defence of the current policy and rejected any possibility of a support’s Bill of Rights. The result? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
By Alexander Shea @alexjshea