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French Cops Are Stoking Fan Violence at Euro 2016

Weirdly, throwing loads of teargas around doesn't calm things down.

by Clifford Stott
Jun 15 2016, 3:20pm

Things get lairy in Marseille. Photo by Owen Humphreys / PA Wire

France 2016 will undoubtedly be remembered for some of the most serious "rioting" witnessed at a major international soccer tournament. Almost immediately after the fighting first broke out last Thursday evening, mainstream media analysis began attributing blame and pouring national disgrace on English hooligans. As one MP put it, those involved in the violence were quite simply "morons."

By Sunday morning, the day after the fixture, the media began to acknowledge a more complex picture. It was becoming increasingly clear that far from being protagonists, England fans were actually victims. Kevin Miles, the chief executive officer of the Football Supporters Federation (FSF), went as far as asserting, at first in radio interviews and then later in a formal statement, that England fans had not initiated a single incident of conflict. He abjectly denied that there were any organized English hooligan groups present in Marseille. He also refused to condemn England fans for their involvement in violence, which he asserted could and should be understood as a legitimate form of "self-defense."

It was an extremely important injection of realism into a debate that, as usual, had become distorted. Accuracy had been sacrificed in favor of the moral condemnation of soccer fans, once again blaming the victims for somehow causing their own misfortune. The FSF's position was not only powerful but also quite courageous, given the dominance of the alternative views at that time.

Nonetheless the available evidence suggests the FSF position ultimately reflected the underlying reality of the way events developed in Marseille. And what is also apparent is how closely they mirrored what happened when England last played in Marseille in 1998, when widespread rioting also took place. Then, as in 2016, this rioting was created not by English hooliganism but by a complex array of interrelating factors linked to crowd psychology and behavior.

It is clear that England fans arriving in Marseille began congregating in the Old Port area of the city on Thursday evening. Some were singing and drinking, acting boisterously, even invoking boorish chants about German Bombers and Krauts. Others were simply relaxing in the many bars and restaurants. At some point, French "Ultras" began perpetrating violent unprovoked attacks on England fans to which the police responded by not by arresting but dispersing protagonists with tear gas grenades. After this point, it seems the police started to use tear gas and coercion to disperse any large gathering of fans, presumably in some flawed attempt to "prevent" further disorder.

It is evident that this then starts to feed into a sense of illegitimacy, vulnerability, antagonism, and empowerment among England fans, toward the locals and police. This gets amplified through a continuing pattern of interactions across the rest of the evening and the next day. In this sense, it is clear the policing response in Marseille was, from the very outset, reliant on the kind of "old school" tactics that our research, both in Marseille in 1998 and elsewhere, demonstrates plays a major role in escalating crowd conflict. Ultimately, the policing fed into a form of identity among England fans whereby conflict against police and locals was understood as increasingly legitimate and at times even necessary in order to defend themselves and others around them, or otherwise retaliate against these essentially unprovoked attacks.

These social psychological processes of escalation, at work across the first two evenings, then fed into the day of the match itself. Here they are further complicated by the arrival of a much larger number of English fans and a group of organized Russian "Ultras" keen to assert their supremacy in the perverse status culture of European hooliganism.

On the basis of eyewitness accounts, it appears that the first fighting actually broke out between the French Ultras who cascaded down into a large crowd of English fans gathered in the Old Port. Amid the confusion, and from the other side, the Russian Ultras moved against the English, purposefully attacking pretty much any and every one they could. The levels of violence they exercised were extreme, and there are accounts of some of them being armed with knives. Some England fans were seriously injured. A few critically. The police then reacted by driving into the crowd with their tear gas and other escalatory tactics. What subsequently took place was the major escalation that constituted the "riot" that filled media headlines and editorials for days.

While media analysis has very much focused on the role of hooligans, what is immediately clear is, as with events in 1998, any adequate analysis of the rioting cannot ignore the role of group interaction and policing in bringing about the violence. What's more, the policing approach in Marseille stands in stark contrast to international guidance and standards of good practice for these major UEFA tournaments. These standards are themselves underpinned by a research based policing model first developed for the highly successful Euro 2004 tournament in Portugal, and then applied and developed during UEFA 2008 and 2012 to equally good effect. While all these previous tournaments had problems they passed off without the kinds of rioting already witnessed in Marseille in 2016, which is evidence in itself of the effectiveness of the approach.

Instead of focusing on the moral condemnation of English soccer fans we need to accept the idea that something has gone badly wrong with policing in Marseille. We need to understand more clearly and objectively the lessons that need to be learned.

This context fed into a psychology among England fans that functioned to both legitimize conflict and increasingly empower fans who felt it was justifiable to confront those other groups. Put simply, England fans found themselves in a situation, as they did in 1998, where they had little option but to "mob up" and "fight back" in order to, as many of them saw it, "defend" themselves.

The most appropriate response is not some sort of soul-searching about a return to the dark days of English hooliganism. Rather it is about creating a policing response that is capable of protecting England fans from these attacks. The key challenge will be to change the French policing tactics toward something more proactive, dynamic, and proportionate. In this sense, one of the key issues arising from Marseille is that the police in France need to move away from their ineffective and counterproductive reactionary policing approach and do much more to conform to international standards of good practice.

Clifford Stott is a professor of social psychology at Keele University. He specializes in crowds, riots, hooliganism, "public order" policing, human rights, and security.

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