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Paris stumbles in pre-Olympics stress test

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Moving the Champions League football final to Paris from the Gazprom Arena in St Petersburg was supposed to be a diplomatic poke in the eye for Vladimir Putin.

It has instead turned into a post-pandemic stress test of the French capital’s ability to manage a major international sporting event — and all the visitors that go with it — ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games.

The chaotic scenes at the Stade de France do not bode well, even if football crowds can be more unruly than triathlon groupies.

People without tickets got in, and people with tickets did not, a result of what the Government blamed on a massive counterfeiting scam. The pepper-spraying of people rushing the gates seemed to confirm the extremes of French policing. The shifting of blame from ministers to local officials to the police has not been encouraging.

Police officers guard the Stade de France before the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid on Saturday. Police deployed tear gas on supporters waiting in long lines. The match was delayed by 37 minutes while security struggled to cope with the vast crowd and fans climbing over fences (Photograph by Christophe Ena/AP)

And with global media pouring into one of the world's most visited cities, cameras were on hand to cover plenty of other miscellany. Spanish television gleefully filmed a rat scurrying outside the Notre Dame cathedral, while on Sunday a man disguised as a wheelchair-bound woman threw a pie at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in a climate protest.

It would be wrong to paint this kind of chaos as a uniquely Parisian or French phenomenon. Last year’s Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium in London was marred by a similar rush of ticketless fans and violence. As cities stir back to life after Covid, managing crowds feels like a work in progress.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering digital currencies, the European Union and France. Previously, he was a reporter for Reuters and Forbes

But France has a lot riding on big sports events designed to burnish its global image. Its successful 2024 Olympics bid made it the poster child of a new kind of sports diplomacy, getting rid of the eye-wateringly expensive white-elephant stadiums of old in favour of more sustainable and cheaper projects that use existing facilities.

Its estimated cost of 6.6 billion euros (about $7.1 billion) is supposed to be proof of the new paradigm, compared with the 31 billion euro cost of the Beijing Olympics or the 16.5 billion euro cost of the Rio de Janeiro Games. And it is also supposed to be a vindication of mayor Anne Hidalgo’s environmental urbanism, with a smaller carbon footprint than London 2012.

In practice, that means a mix of new and renovated buildings between Paris and Saint-Denis, site of the Stade de France, which is supposed to be the main beneficiary of regeneration — similar to Stratford in London.

And it also means new transport infrastructure, from a metro expansion to newly pedestrianised streets and dedicating part of the ring-road around Paris known as the peripherique to Olympic transport. Football fans walking along the Seine on Saturday already have a taste of the kind of anti-car enthusiasm that makes Hidalgo popular with the bobo (hipster) crowd.

There was already a risk of disappointment before this weekend. Covid has already meant several of these projects will not be ready in time.

Urbanist Laurent Chalard also warns that lowering the cost and sprawl of an Olympics project also means potentially losing some of the regeneration benefit. Unlike Stratford, the plans for Saint-Denis, at the northern edge of Paris, do not include a railway station or as much real estate.

It is therefore vital that what can be fixed does get fixed. Some of the lessons of this weekend will be organisational. Sebastien Louis, a historian who specialises in sports fan organisations, notes stadium security in France can involve a hasty last-minute recruitment drive; he suggests looking at Denmark, which requires training and a licence.

Others will be cultural: managing crowds of football fans has tended to default to strong-arm tactics once used against hooligans, as some local officials admitted on Monday.

And still more will be about the unequal post-Covid urban fault lines of big cities, such as access to employment, transport and housing. If delays and disappointments mar the social-inclusion hopes of Saint-Denis — which Emmanuel Macron unconvincingly described as a budding “California” — conflict with police will not stop.

Last weekend’s final was not quite the soft-power victory lap it was supposed to be. But as a stress test for the future of urban development, it’s a needed wake-up call.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering digital currencies, the European Union and France. Previously, he was a reporter for Reuters and Forbes

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Published June 01, 2022 at 7:52 am (Updated June 01, 2022 at 7:52 am)

Paris stumbles in pre-Olympics stress test

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