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Charting the history of violence in French football

Written by Ili Hyseni

french ultras.jpg

Last weekend’s crowd trouble that led to the suspension of the Olympico derby four minutes into the game was just the latest such event to have rocked French football. This is, of course, nothing new. The season had barely started when the Nice-Marseille game was suspended after fans threw projectiles in Payet’s direction. A full out brawl between staff and fans ensued, leaving the authorities furious and the French game in disrepute. 


The genesis of football hooliganism in French football can be traced back to the late 70’s and early 80’s when a set of PSG fans notorious in the Boulogne stand of Parc des Princes formed a group called the Boulogne Boys. The group was moulded in the form of Italian style ultras, with later iterations adopting the violent methods of British football hooligans. 


France was hit hard in the Nineties. The period of post war growth had come to an abrupt halt in the decade previous and as a result, societal problems grew. Rising unemployment coupled with immigration increased social division and led to the alienation of many groups. Throughout most of the Nineties, unemployment averaged at 11.86% and with lots of time on their hands, the youth would find belonging in the stands. Violent organised fan groups successfully recruited these people and could rely on their naivety and need for purpose. Once initiated, these impressionable youths would develop hateful ideologies leading to a rise in racial tensions in France. 


Demographic analysis of hooligans arrested in the Nineties shows that the offenders were primarily young white males from working class backgrounds. As immigration to France increased, those arrested were more diverse and reflected groups who were segregated by neighbourhood and ethnic background. Later in the 2000’s, the Boulogne Boys would fight with other more diverse PSG groups. Fighting between Arab fans led by the ‘President’ Mehdi ben Slima and white French fans has often erupted on the ‘Auteil’ terraces.


1998-2000 provided some respite from the sinister atmosphere that had gripped French football. The national team’s exploits at the World Cup and the following European Championship were praised by all parts of society. Zidane was of course the focal point of those great teams and he quickly became the poster boy for a new multicultural France. The new found tolerance and respect for each other was even coined, 'L'Effet Zidane’. Politicians were quick to jump on this feeling of good will. President Jacque Chirac not known for his love of football even wore the national team shirt. 


The positivity did not last long. Post Euro 2000, the team fell into a pattern of mediocrity and the fans were quick to blame the players that only two years ago were national heroes. A turning point proved to be 2001’s friendly with France’s former colony Algeria. Having fought a bitter war in the Seventies, the game was fought accordingly so. Chants in support of Osama bin Laden were heard and the likes of Zidane were labelled as traitors. 


As positive results were hard to come by and fans started venting their frustrations, politicians were yet again using the sport for their own political gain. This time however, the narrative was in stark contrast to that of 1998-2000. Football was blamed for contributing to social malaise and a crackdown on violence in the stands was announced. Whereas in the Nineties football hooliganism was a result of lack of economic opportunity in France, its second coming in the 2000’s came as a consequence of different factors. 


Social classes in France are strongly divided. With football being a predominantly working class sport, the ruling elite often look down on fans with disdain. Far right Presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen was famous for his opposition to the national team, calling its make-up “artificial” due to too many Black and Arab players featuring. 


The views of politicians aiming to win votes led to a mishandling of fan groups and thus a mishandling of the violence. Coupled with this is a media landscape that berate those who love the sport. The media narrative in the mid 2000’s was that football was a sport of drunken pointless violence organised by uneducated scum. In turn the football authorities refused to accept that the violence seen in the stands was a result of the fans being treated with such contempt. Speaking to the Observer in 2006 for a special report on the situation, a PSG fan spoke of his dissatisfaction with the state of the game; “Football in France is a joke, it's an insult to true fans. But that is the same throughout French football. The fans are not important. Only money and power count now.” 


Class divisions are best reflected in the PSG/O.M derby. For many Marseille fans PSG represent the ruling elite in France, accusing them of metropolitan arrogance. On the other hand working class Marseille with its large immigrant communities represents the exhibitionism of the south of France. The differences between the two clubs, on and off the pitch, can be described as a major clash of cultures. It is not uncommon for fans to throw flares at each other, sing hateful songs and parade around coffins- insinuating the death of their opponents. These fans are divided over football but it also goes much deeper than that. 


While class and racial divisions undoubtedly play a large part in hooliganism, regionalism is also a major factor. A strong sense of regionalism prevails in France, with citizens strongly attached to where they live. The French will identify as French abroad but at home as Lillois, Marseillais, Parisien etc. This form of identification leads to the development of fanatical derbies, with teams playing for the pride of a whole region. In the case of Bordeaux, the club’s nearest Ligue 1 rivals can be 100s of KMs away which means the club acts as a representative for its region Aquitaine. 


Regionalism is also reflected in club names. Whereas in Germany, football clubs promote their long and storied pasts through their names such as Bayer 04 or 1860 Munich, French clubs are attached to their region. Some examples are: ASSE Loire, AS Nancy Lorraine and FC Girodins de Bordeaux. One of the best examples of regionalism in the French game can again be found in the PSG-O.M dichotomy. Devotion for one’s club is exhibited through violence in the name of one’s region. As most fans will be well aware of, the PSG-O.M derby is not the only one in the country. Other vociferous match ups include the Derby du Nord (Lille v Lens), Derby Rhone-Alpine (O.L v ASSE) and Derby Breton (historically Nantes v Rennes). 


Violent hooliganism can mostly be found at derby games, as one would expect. French football has experienced large periods of domination by one club. First in the 2000’s with Lyon and in the 2010’s with PSG. During such periods, when the likelihood of a new title winner is unlikely, the jeopardy in local derbies is heightened. With local/regional pride at stake and fans highly strung, violence becomes a by-product. 


With the causes of hooliganism explained, a number of high profile cases have stood out as examples of how bad the situation has become in France. 


  • 18 years ago, a PSG fan was murdered after watching his team against Nice. This event led the then interior minister and PSG fan Nicolas Sarkozy to declare a war on hooliganism.

  • In 2006, a plain clothed officer shot dead a PSG fan during an anti semitic attack on an Israeli fan after PSG’s 4-2 loss to Hapoel Tel Aviv in the UEFA Cup. PSG fans had also beaten up a French born Senegalese man earlier that month.

  • 2010 saw another PSG fan die after being attacked by his own fans in the buildup to the derby against Olympique Marseille. 

  • An effigy of Mathieu Valbuena was hung in the stands by Marseille fans after his controversial transfer to Olympique Lyon. 


Where does this leave the game in France and what is being done to tackle the issue?


There are opposing views on how to handle this crisis. The Minister of Sports Roxana Maracineanu has been leading calls for tougher sanctions on clubs and fans. A number of measures have been discussed:


An increase in stadium bans is being called for by politicians. This would increase the maximum ban from 5 to 10 years. Currently France has the least amount of fans banned from stadiums with 500. In comparison, Germany has 3000 and the UK has 10,000. 


The Sports Minister has called for an immediate suspension of matches in the wake of violence. She argues that the resumption of matches after 20 minutes is not a strong enough deterrent for violent fans. The Ligue de Football Professionel is also lobbying for greater legal powers to punish teams. Currently the powers at the LFP’s disposal include points deductions and imposing a closed door policy on matches. 


The Sports Ministry is keen to increase policing and create a ‘national unit for cooperation and security’. This agency would be tasked with identifying and arresting perpetrators. The possibility of extra training to stewards and match officials is also being looked at. 


The most controversial measure comes in the form of facial recognition technology. The use of the technology has been discussed in a number of leagues with the EPL exploring the possibility of it in response to racism in the stands. The technology was also famously trialled at a FC Metz-Strasbourg game in 2020 but plans were dropped soon after fans protested its use. Problems also lie in the fact that the software is prone to making mistakes in identifying ethnic minorities. 


Football in France can go either way. This season is one of the most exciting in recent memory and will contribute positively to the branding of Ligue 1. The French league has suffered in comparison to other leagues in Europe, being billed as a one horse race. The instances of hooliganism and violence will do no good to its reputation. There is a disconnect between those that adjudicate the game and those who go and consume it. A long lasting solution must be found through consensus between fan groups, clubs and the governing bodies. Outside of the game, societal issues must be addressed to ensure that they do not fester in the stands. It is often said that football is a reflection of the society it serves. 

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