Friday 30 September 2016

Euro 2016: shadow of a gunman

Irish supporters love to travel and they know how to enjoy themselves when they get there. But will the threat of terrorism spoil the party for 70,000 of our fans at next month's festival of football in France?

Published 22/05/2016 | 02:30

Iconic: One of the fan zones in Paris will be at the Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Catherine O’Hara.
Iconic: One of the fan zones in Paris will be at the Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Catherine O’Hara.
Security will be tight during Euro 2016.
Jon Walters celebrates after scoring in the Euro 2016 qualifier, play-off vs Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

It is early evening on Saturday and Place de la République is heaving. Thousands of mainly young people gather here in one of Paris's most popular sites for peaceful protest. Today, at one end of the square, there's a campaign to highlight conflict in Africa; at the other end, a handful of activists are trying to interest passers-by in a petition in support of Palestine.

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It is a part of the French capital that will be full of football fans when Euro 2016 kicks off on June 10 - and it will be packed with Irish supporters who will be in town on Monday, June 13 for our opening game against Sweden at the Stade de France, a short Metro-ride away in the run-down district of Saint-Denis.

An enormous monument, with mighty lion sculptures at its base, stands at the centre of the Place. For more than six months now, it has been a shrine devoted to the victims of the bloody terrorist attack Paris suffered on the night of November 13, and it is festooned with graffiti, flowers, blue, white and red ribbons of the French national flag, candles and home-made signs.

One of those signs spells out Paris and Brussels and the three dates that denote last November's attack, the massacre at the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in Paris on January 7, 2015, and the Brussels airport bombing of March 22 this year. It's a reminder of both the horrors that this city - and its Belgian counterpart - have suffered in the past 18 months, and the threat from radical fundamentalists that hangs over so much of Europe, especially as it is about to stage its showpiece football tournament.

And there are reminders, too, on each of the large streets that radiate from the square. On every corner, two heavily armed policemen wearing body armour and helmets stand sentry. Down one street, several white minibuses of the CRS - the national police service - are parked, and several officers wait inside. And on Boulevard Voltaire, the dark blue vans of the gendarmerie - the police service normally found outside the large urban areas - park in a row, their officers waiting on the pavements next to them, their radios crackling with instructions from their superiors.

Some 500 metres down this grand, if shabby, street lies the Bataclan - the music venue where 89 people were gunned down while attending an Eagles of Death Metal concert during the deadly November 13 attack on the city that claimed 130 lives in total. Today, the building is closed. Clad with scaffolding, and the odd floral tribute, it's set to reopen later this year.

Its reopening will be a sign of France's resilience in the face of such violent aggression. And those signs are everywhere. Several of those who were murdered in November were sitting in open-air seats outside restaurants, and there was something of a campaign afterwards to ensure that people would not be cowed into retreating indoors.

"This is part of our way of life," says Gilles Simon, sipping a Guinness on the terrace outside Corcoran's Irish Pub. "And we will not change for anyone. The terrorists think they can make us afraid, but they can't. This is Paris - one of the world's great cities and we are not afraid. And will not be divided."

Walk through bohemian districts like La Marais and Bastille and there's no visible hint of a police presence at all. It's difficult to believe that the country is still in a state of emergency - one it plans to extend until the completion of the Tour de France on July 24. You have to go to areas packed with tourists, such as Place de la Concorde and the Trocadero, to see police and soldiers on patrol.

But, there are subtle signs of change. It is impossible to go to the cinema in Paris, or to one of its grand department stores, without having your bag checked. And concert venues take an even stricter approach. Iggy Pop is playing a sold-out gig at the Le Grand Rex venue and notices warn that backpacks will not be permitted inside under any circumstance.

Security efforts will be greatly tightened in the week leading up to the start of the tournament, when fans from the 24 participating countries will arrive. The Department of Foreign Affairs estimates that anywhere between 70,000 and 100,000 Irish will make the trip, many of them without tickets.

Martin O'Neill's squad fly out on June 8 and will be based in historic, regal city of Versailles, just outside Paris, for the duration of the tournament. Uefa, in conjunction with French security services, have promised to step up security for all teams with counter-terrorist personnel embedded at each team hotel and training camp.

In addition, police officers from all participants, including Ireland, will be sent to the tournament to work as plain-clothes officers, in liaison with French police. Threats of hooligan activity - which haven't gone away - necessitated such cooperation in previous tournaments, but post-Bataclan, Euro 2016 is requiring greater numbers than ever.

The abandonment of Manchester United's final game of the season on Sunday, following the discovery of what police initially thought was a bomb, but turned out to be a device used in a mock security exercise, demonstrates how jittery the football world is about the threat posed by Isis and other jihadist groups.

Football's European governing body, Uefa, has good reason to be fearful. On the night of the Bataclan attack, attempts were made to smuggle a bomb into the Stade de France during France's game with Germany. Foiled in his attempt, the attacker detonated the explosive outside the stadium, killing himself, his accomplice and an innocent civilian. The bang could be heard inside the ground and was picked up on the television broadcast.

The mood of unease surrounding events attracting large numbers of people had been evident less than two months before, when U2 were forced to cancel a show in Stockholm over security fears.

And when police made arrests in Molenbeek, Brussels - the nerve centre of the Paris attacks - they found evidence that terrorists were seeking to cause havoc during the Euros, the world's third biggest sporting event after the Olympics and World Cup.

This week, RTÉ pundit Eamon Dunphy likely echoed the sentiments of some when he said he "wouldn't feel safe going to the Euros", noting that it would be "an obvious target for terrorists". But many others are not deterred. There were more than 70,000 ticket applications from Irish fans - the fifth highest number per country after Poland, France, Austria and Switzerland - but only 30,000-odd tickets have been allocated to them to date.

It's likely that thousands of Irish who make the trip will not be able to secure tickets, but will want to soak up the atmosphere in one of the 'fan zones' - specially designated areas in each of the 10 host cities - where big screens will relay the action. In Paris, the zone will be based on Champ de Mars - the large patch of green that runs from the Eiffel Tower to the École Militaire. This week, work began on readying the area for the tournament.

But a former head of the police service in France urged organisers not to go ahead with the zone in Paris. "It's madness to think you can put 100,000 people in the area below the Eiffel Tower every night for a month without risk," Frédéric Péchenard said last week. "It will take a lot of police officers, who won't be available for counter-terrorism operations."

Uefa is promising that each of the fan zones will be monitored by police 24 hours a day for the duration of the tournament. Metal detectors will be employed at all entrances. No-fly zones are being put in place above these parks - and in the vicinity of all stadia and training grounds. And, just this week, it was confirmed that anti-drone technology had been developed to counteract the threat of an airborne chemical attack.

Today, the only threat on the Champ de Mars appears to be from the pickpockets who stalk unsuspecting tourists. A number of soldiers, bearing machine guns, patrol the base of the Eiffel Tower, but they seem relaxed and content to converse with selfie-loving tourists.

Remarkably, there's virtually no sign anywhere in Paris that the Euros are about to be staged in the country. There are no billboards or other hoarding heralding the tournament, an approach that would have been utterly alien to England, for instance, when it hosted the Euros 20 years ago, or, indeed, Germany, when it helmed the World Cup of 2006.

Several of the people who talk to Review display what might be charitably described as a Gallic shrug of indifference. "We will start to think about it in June," says Jerome Delfours, who is playing boules with his father and their friends in front of the magnificent Les Invalides building. "Paris is familiar with organising these large events. It is not a big deal."

Paul Girard, who sports a T-shirt bearing the name of the only professional football club in the city, Paris Saint Germain, is more excited. "I hope many people come here from Ireland," he says. "They will see that France is the perfect place for a tournament like this. People should not be afraid to come. I'm sure the authorities are working very well to make the stadiums safe.

"But," he adds, "it is impossible to make sure there are no problems elsewhere. You cannot have police in every bar and restaurant or in every Metro car. It is the same in any other city in Europe. The terrorists can attack anywhere they see as their enemy. But we all have to live our lives and not be afraid."

Ireland's second game - against Belgium - takes place in Bordeaux's futuristic-looking Nouveau Stade on June 18. It takes three-and-a-half hours to get here from Paris on the high-speed TGV train and while security will be tight for fans travelling within France for the duration of the tournament, it feels relaxed right now.

"For about a week after the November attacks, there was quite a show of force," says a TGV passenger, a London expat, who declines to be named. "You had soldiers in all the stations, there were a lot of checks and delays. You could sense that they had been left reeling by what had happened. But it went back to normality very quickly.

"The Euros are a very different proposition, though, and I don't envy the task they have ahead of them. You saw what happened at Old Trafford: nobody will risk playing a game if there's even a hint that there's something wrong and there's a fear that the likes of Isis will try to disrupt things as much as possible."

If Parisians appear largely calm about the security threat, the Bordelais are even more chilled out. In the course of more than 24 hours here, no police or soldiers are encountered whatsoever, and there are no bag checks.

It's difficult to say if the city will be quite as relaxed when it plays host to five matches in the tournament, but it seems like a safe bet to suggest the hordes of Irish will have wonderful memories in its beautiful, car-free old-town centre where the region's glorious wine tradition is celebrated in the bars and restaurant.

There is such a different feel to Lille that it could be another country. Ireland plays its final first round game here against Italy on June 22. The security presence appears to be more visible in this city, which has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed in France during World War II. It had its own scare in March when its TGV and Eurostar train station, Lille Europe, had to be evacuated, but the bomb alert turned out to be fake.

Lille is less than 20km from the Belgian border and there is a distinct Flemish vibe among its streets. David, a Lille-resident and proud native of Brussels, expects great things of his national side. "We will massacre the Irish," he says, with a laugh.

"Do you know Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen? Do Ireland have players like these?"

David says the Belgian connection to the atrocities that have scarred Europe of late is a source of great embarrassment to his country. "These animals are not Belgian," he insists. "They do not care about us, or you, or anybody in Europe. They hate our freedom. But we cannot stop the things that are important to us, like football. If we do, they win."

It's a sentiment echoed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who recently launched a bid for her city to host the Olympics in 2024: "Paris is proud to welcome Europe. It's unifying."

But, for now, France - and all of Europe - will hold its collective breath until July 10 when the tournament draws to a close.

Keep it safe: The fan guide

Irish officials will be present in Paris, Bordeaux and Lille to assist Irish fans.

From June 10, supporters can call a dedicated Department helpline that they are being advised to save to their phones: 0033 1441 767 80.

Any email queries should be sent to the Irish Embassy in Paris via www.dfa.ie/irish-embassy/france.

Travelling fans are advised to register their details with the Department at www.dfa.ie/travel, which will make contacting them easier in the event of emergency.

A specialised 'microsite' has also been created in order to relay all of the Department's key information: www.dfa.ie/euro2016.

Counter terror: The Facts

ir Paris_160516_2.jpg  

Eight million fans expected to travel to and between the host cities during the tournament.

An extra €34m is being allocated to security spending — more than €1m per day.

10,000 people have been hired to help provide security, including 900 guards at the matches.

Strict measures will be in place to prevent those without tickets from approaching stadiums.

No part of the country will be more than 20 minutes away from an anti-terrorist unit.

Police snipers will be on duty on match days.

The state of emergency imposed in the wake of the Paris attacks has been extended until after the tournament.

This imposes restrictions on large gatherings and granting additional powers to the police.

The Paris fan zone — set to host 130,000 supporters — will be completely barricaded, with security including metal detectors, video surveillance, daily bomb sweeps and restrictions on bag sizes.

Police at the site will be assisted by a further 400 private security guards.

Security forces will be unable to provide similar levels of surveillance to other host city fan zones — including Place François Mitterrand in Lille and the Esplanade des Quinconces in Bordeaux — where large Irish crowds will gather.

Security at border crossings, airports and other transport hubs has already been enhanced and is likely to be further tightened throughout the tournament, resulting in increased travel times.

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