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PARIS — France’s interior and sports ministers will face questions in the Senate on Wednesday about what happened at the Stade de France on Saturday, when the Champions League final was marred by chaotic scenes, with fans stuck in large queues outside the stadium and police using tear gas on supporters.
Under pressure to defend France’s policing methods, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin blamed “industrial scale” ticket fraud and disorganized Liverpool fans for the problems. The government says there were 30,000 to 40,000 British fans with either no tickets or fake ones, which created bottlenecks, and that the police used tear gas to clear space and prevent a deadly crowd surge. Darmanin has largely stood by the police’s handling of the situation, despite admitting in a TV interview that some of it hadn’t been “proportionate.”
But his line of defense has come under fire from opposition figures, who have accused him of cooking up figures and having a tin-earned approach to fans who say they were rough-handled by the police.
On Wednesday, Darmanin and newly-appointed Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra will have to answer questions from senators about what happened on Saturday night.
“The events near the Stade de France … offered a poor image of France on the international scene and have sparked strong concerns about its ability to organize international competitions with a high level of security,” the senators heading the hearing wrote in a press release.
With France hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2023 and the Olympic Games in 2024, the government is under pressure to show it can answer criticisms about Saturday’s Liverpool-Real Madrid match. Emmanuel Macron has been dragged into what has been dubbed a “fiasco,” with the president having been heavily involved in talks to get the match played in France after it was moved from its original location in Russia.
Under opposition fire
With parliamentary elections in June, the opposition smells blood and has come at the government hard over the situation.
Television footage showed police officers teargassing families queuing to enter the stadium, distraught fans waving their tickets as they tried to get in, and local youths, who did not appear to be football fans, scaling the fences to enter the stadium.
Far-right lawmaker Eric Ciotti accused Darmanin of lying about police shortcomings and said the idea that there were up to 40,000 British fans without tickets or with fake tickets was “completely false and deceptive.”
“The reality is that there were probably some fake tickets, but not that many. And the reality nobody is talking about is that there were attacks and thefts perpetrated by local people,” he said on the France 2 TV channel Tuesday. The decision to lift some of the barriers to reduce bottlenecks around the stadium meant muggers and pickpockets were able to target fans queuing to get in, he said.
Far-right MEP Jordan Bardella also attacked Darmanin and accused him of being a “pathogenic liar” who was risking “a diplomatic incident with the U.K.” on French radio. Both Darmanin and Oudéa-Castéra had tried to shift some of the blame onto British fans, accusing them of being disorganized and arriving late.
On Monday, the chairman of Liverpool Football Club, Tom Werner, hit back angrily in a letter to France’s sports minister, accusing her government of pursuing a “blame game strategy” and demanding an apology over “comments [that] were irresponsible, unprofessional, and wholly disrespectful to the thousands of fans harmed physically and emotionally.”
Macron’s government has also faced attacks from the newly-united left in France. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said France’s image was “miserable” and Saturday’s events proved the country was “not ready” to host events such as the Olympics.
“It’s a complete failure of our policing strategy … There should be a complete overhaul of the French police to make it efficient,” he said on BFMTV.
The match has rekindled a debate over police violence that erupted during the Yellow Jackets protests in 2018 and 2019. At the time, videos of alleged police brutality went viral while officers maintained they were facing increased violence from protesters.
Devil in the details
When the decision was taken in February to move the Champions League final from St. Petersburg in the wake of the Ukraine war, France stepped up to host the event and Macron himself was heavily involved in the talks, according to multiple officials.
Ministers on Wednesday will face questions on several fronts — on police tactics, on their response to a Paris train strike, and also on why problems had not been anticipated.
On Tuesday, it emerged that France’s security services had warned the authorities last week that up to 50,000 British fans without tickets or with fake tickets were expected in Paris.
A key question is whether the ministers will stand by the figures they have been using over the past couple of days. Journalists and eyewitnesses have been picking holes in the ministers’ claims that there were up to 40,000 fans without tickets or with fake tickets. Some have pointed out that there weren’t tens of thousands left stranded outside the stadium after kick-off, others that legitimate tickets were being rejected by the scanning machines.
Questions have been raised over how this figure was calculated, whether it is based on ticket checks or simply an estimation based on rail transport figures. According to RMC Sport radio station, 2,800 fake tickets were scanned at the stadium’s last checkpoint, which led to an estimation of tens of thousands of fake tickets at earlier checks.