The 13 November Paris attacks that saw suicide bombers blowing themselves up around the “Stade de France” during a match opposing France and Germany were no coincidence. The terrorists targeted the stadium where the European Football Championship (Euro 2016) would start on 10 June and end a month later.
Since the attack, French authorities have put a strong emphasis on security planning around the upcoming event. But, as PM Manuel Valls has repeated time and again, there is no such thing as zero risk, and IS has put the competition on top of its hitlist.
While the terrorist threat is the number one concern, the current social climax in the country could also harm the organization of an event that promises economic benefits for France, and a potential political reward for the government.
The security challenge
Since the attacks last November, security forces have been under constant criticism for their handling of the terrorist threat. On 21 May, the security system around the Stade de France was put under serious strain during the final of the French Football Cup between Paris and Marseilles (a game traditionally tainted with rivalry), when fans threw firecrackers and flares that lit fires inside the stadium, and a new perimeter outside caused overcrowding.
The warning was watered down by French authorities, who claim that national supporters are of a different, more familial nature, and that the organizer (the EUFA, instead of the French Federation for the Paris-Marseille match) has everything under control. However, a match between England and Russia in the first weekend of the competition saw violent clashes in the stadium and within the fan zone, further questioning the security apparatus.
Indeed, a sophisticated security system was established to protect fans during the competition both from terrorists and hooligans. France still is under the state of emergency, so it can control its borders and deploy unconventional operations in case of imminent threat. Cooperation between the Ministry of Interior, the EUFA, and European national hooliganism counter-police services have also been enhanced, and the French will deploy over 70 000 police officers, 12 000 private security personnel and 10 000 military throughout the territory.
Other measures include the creation of a cell of analysts that will monitoring threats based on an evaluation framework that grades matches on a danger scale of 1 to 4 (with 5 games graded 3 and no match in the “4 category”), a doubled security perimeter (with two body searches) around stadiums and secured fan zones around the country under video surveillance. The latter setting has concentrated criticism for what opponents consider a lack of trained security personnel — mostly from private contractors.
In addition, fans from the 28 countries participating in the competition that are forbidden to go to matches at home will be banned from France during the competition, and 30 simulation exercises have been organized in the 10 cities hosting matches. While the hooligan risk is problematic, terrorist threats will remain the main concern. With 7,5 million visitors expected for the competition, it will give headaches both to security operators and politicians for a month.
Meanwhile, the French government has to resolve another thorny issue, with unions threatening to remain on strike if Paris refuses to back down on its labor reforms.
The country has been paralyzed by transport strikes and unions have declared they would keep blocking the country, as long as the government refuses to withdraw a measure that would give predominance to social negotiations within companies instead of through national and transversal negotiations.
The debate over the reform has divided French society, and the use of decree 49-3 — which enables the government to force the bill through Parliament — has made the debate toxic. If the government stays on course and unions apply to their threat, the competition could well become a demonstration of French social cracks and showcase its lack of discernment to sabotage an event that implies enormous economic spinoffs.
Image and Economic opportunities
In fact, the Euro is the third biggest sporting event in the world in terms of media attention and economic benefits — after the Olympics and the Football World Cup. According to the Limoges Centre for Sport Economics and Law, the event has already created 20,000 jobs and could earn €1.4bn (about $1.59bn).
Besides the direct economic benefit from stadium entries, fan-zone profits and other event-related earnings, the competition will also have an economic impact on the broader touristic sector, which is worth about 7,4% of the French economy. A successful event would boost a sector that had suffered from the terrorist attacks of 2015, by reducing fear from world travelers.
The French government also has put emphasis on the event as an opportunity for marketing the country and has focused on the heritage of the competition to promote tourism in cities that do not usually attract tourism, like Northern town Lens. Moreover, Paris hopes to use the Euro as a platform for its campaign to host the Olympics in 2024.
Likewise, the government will use the event and media attention for diplomatic purposes, as it sees matches as an opportunity to push several dossiers. It will be the case for the match opposing Poland and Germany on 16 June, when leaders of both countries are expected to seat with their French counterpart to discuss the rule of law, weeks after Brussels published a “negative opinion” of the Warsaw’s paralysis of its highest court.
Opportunity for Hollande
Finally, the French President can count on a successful Euro to give resonance to his claim that “things are getting better” in the country. In fact, growth figures for the first quarter were better than expected (0.6% instead of 0.5%) and business investment jumped 2.4% instead of the 1.6% originally estimated. Job numbers also showed positive signs for Hollande for the second consecutive month, with jobless claims at their lowest level in a year.
Despite this recent improvement, the president’s popularity keeps dropping to record lows. According to a survey by polling institute Cevipof, just 4% of the population are satisfied with the president, and 14% plan of voting for him in next year’s presidential elections, which would not be enough for him to qualify for the run-off.
In case the Euro ends without any major incident, Hollande will probably get some credit for his handling of the security threat, which would complete this positive picture of the country’s situation and direction.
Whether if France wins will help him surge in opinion polls is open to debate. But a French win would likely appease social tensions. In a build-up of claims that the selection of French players could be based on race rather than talent, Karim Benzema, a star player who was not selected in the squad for his suspected role in the blackmailing of another player (in the so-called “sex-tape affair”), accused the French coach of “succumbing to the pressure from a racist part of French society”.
The racial debate is a blessing for the anti-immigrant (and anti-EU) party the National Front, which benefits from societal cracks on this kind of issue. Ultimately, a French victory has the potential to deliver a strengthening of social ties in a country that takes a nostalgic look back to the Black-Blanc-Beur generation (a team composed by equally black, white and butter, think Northern African looking players) that won the world cup in 1998.