The French Cup final between Paris St Germain and Monaco may yield drama on the pitch this week but off the field, hooliganism and racism threaten to tear Paris’s top club apart and spark a bout of social tension.
Soccer hooliganism in Europe is not uncommon but unlike much of the rest of the continent, PSG’s fanaticism is within its own stands and creating an example that is spreading into other clubs, such as Lyon, Nice and into Corsica.
France’s government on Thursday announced a ban on five Paris St Germain (PSG) fan associations after a supporter was killed following riots outside the club’s stadium in February.
At the heart of the violence lies the rivalry between two sets of supporters — “Boulogne” known for far-right views and “Auteuil”, which was set up to provide a multi-ethnic fan base.
“When we think of PSG, we think racism,” said Christophe Huldry, a spokesman for one the Auteuil associations, whose supporters were blamed for the murder. “When we go to a football match, it’s not to die. We can’t not do anything anymore.”
The February riots saw about 150 Boulogne fans chanting slogans such as “Hitler for President”. A group of Auteuil fans is teaming up with anti-racism groups to file 30 complaints against fellow supporters for racial slurs and violence.
The club, whose fans include French President Nicolas Sarkozy and veteran actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, was forced to play games behind closed doors and the management has cut ticket sales.
“These penalties (are aimed) at eliminating from our stadiums pseudo supporters with totally unacceptable behaviour,” Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said of the government ban, which means five groups will be dissolved.
But the government has stopped short of evoking the racism issue, which has plagued PSG’s stands for about 20 years.
“What’s shocking is the Interior Ministry has recognised the problem of violence, but a lot less the subject of racism,” said Carine Bloch, president of the sport’s commission for the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA).
Britain fought a crusade against hooligans during the 1980s. More recently racist incidents primarily in Italy involving chants from home fans have blighted matches, forcing European soccer body UEFA to issue guidelines to handle the chants.
“At a time of crisis, we are seeing a push across Europe in nationalism and identity politics,” Bloch said.
The racism complaints come when France is again gripped by issues of race and national identity. Paris suburbs are the backdrop for bus burnings, stone-throwing and drug trafficking by disaffected youth, many of them from an immigrant background.
Still smarting from a beating in March’s regional elections, Sarkozy has also revived a strident tone on law and order.
Boulogne spokesman Philippe Perreira has admitted that some fans in his stand are guilty of making Nazi salutes and chanting slogans, something that he condemns, but says is rife among “a young generation” and is being stamped out by older fans.
It remains an unwritten rule that nobody of colour enters the Boulogne stand, be it supporters or stewards.
While the Auteuil fans were turning to anti-racism groups, they also had a militant side, LICRA’s Bloch said.
Perreira has described Auteuil fans turning up at a match dressed in traditional Arab gowns in January, as “provocation”.
PSG, lying 25 points off the pace in the league, will hope Saturday’s match provides a good result to help calm its fans.
But the club’s woes are of its own making after years of neglect and a decline on the pitch, stemming from uncertainty at the top. Its current majority shareholder, Colony Capital, is unpopular accused of a lack of investment and interest.
PSG’s president Robin Leproux, who was caught in a racial storm for saying the Auteuil stand was “too mixed”, has pledged to clean things up by working with authorities to secure the stadium and persuade families to return.
“The club is in our blood, but is also everything we detest,” said Auteuil’s Huldry, a PSG supporter since 1989. “We want a club we can identify with… a club that 10 million Parisians can identify with.
(Editing by John O’Brien; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)