It may not be much consolation to those Liverpool fans who were caught up in the chaos at the Stade de France on Saturday evening, but Marine Le Pen is on their side. In a television interview on Sunday the leader of the National Rally described events at the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid as a ‘humiliation’ for France, and she scoffed at the suggestion that English fans were to blame.
That was the claim made on Saturday evening by France’s Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, who, as tear gas still hung in the air around the country’s national stadium, tweeted his praise for the police and his condemnation of the ‘English supporters’.
Emmanuel Macron’s government has acquired a reputation for Anglophobia but this was a new low, a crass and ill-informed comment by a minister, and a deeply insensitive one. Television images of Liverpool fans crushed up against railings, including women and children, evoked memories of that terrible day at Hillsborough in 1989.
The television pictures revealed something else: that those scaling the stadium fences – who were not wearing Liverpool colours – did not, as one French reporter pointed out, look like typical Liverpool fans.
And then, even as Darmanin was making his unfounded accusation on Twitter, other images were going viral on social media: of young men speaking astonishingly good French – for Liverpudlians – boasting that they had got inside the stadium for free and were looking forward to the match.
‘We came here without tickets, without anything, but we got into the game,' said one man. ‘People who paid, 5 or 6,000 euros (for their ticket) and I’m here for free.’ As an afterthought he said: ‘F**k France.’
According to Le Figaro, contrary to the claims made by Darmanin that Liverpool fans were the source of the trouble, a police official told them that among the 105 people arrested on Saturday night only a small number were English. The majority detained were reportedly either of French nationality or undocumented foreigners but with no link to the match. ‘Inner city thugs committing opportunistic crimes,’ in the words of Matthieu Valet, a spokesman for a police union, a reference also to the number of English fans who were mugged outside the stadium by local hoodlums.
Saturday was supposed to be a sporting celebration, the denouement of the European football season, bringing together two of the continent’s most famous clubs. St Petersburg had been scheduled to host the final but they were stripped of the honour after Russia invaded Ukraine. France stepped in at short notice. Macron is a football fan and he doubtless thought it would be a boost for the country, evidence of how in a time of crisis the French can be relied on.
Instead the world witnessed a debacle, and Le Pen is not wrong to talk of a ‘humiliation’. In just over 12 months France hosts the Rugby World Cup, and a year later the Olympics. Will something similar happen at these events?
Le Pen claimed that Saturday’s chaos was less to do with English fans and fake tickets and more to the fact that ‘the department of Seine-Saint-Denis is out of control’. Seine-Saint-Denis, where the Stade de France is situated, is the most impoverished department in the country and has struggled to shake off the reputation as an area where one does not want to linger.
At the start of this month the former France and Arsenal footballer Thierry Henry caused something of a social media storm in France with his remarks about the area. Appearing on an American football programme, Henry pointed out to viewers that the Stade de France is not technically in Paris. ‘It’s very close but believe me, you don’t want to be in Saint-Denis,’ he said. ‘It’s not the same as Paris.’
Of course, disorder is nothing new at football matches, and there is a whiff of sanctimony among some British media outlets in their coverage of Saturday’s match; less than twelve months ago, there were similar scenes at Wembley when fans charged the turnstiles before England played Italy in the final; and in recent weeks, there have been a number of violent pitch invasions at the end of league matches.
Nonetheless, what the Sun has dubbed the ‘Stade de Farce’ has turned into a major political embarrassment for Macron with the timing particularly unpropitious. On Sunday week the French vote in the legislative elections. Recent polls indicate that the president’s Renaissance party may struggle to gain a majority of seats in the National Assembly. Saturday will not win over wavering voters. The French people are sensitive to how they are perceived by the rest of the world, and they will not appreciate being the centre of global scorn.
During the presidential campaign Le Pen’s main focus was on the cost-of-living crisis; too much so, according to some within her party, who believed she should have made more of the soaring crime rates and the failure of the government to rein in uncontrolled immigration. In football parlance, Saturday night has presented Le Pen with an open goal which even she, a politician not known for a deft touch, is unikely to miss.