France Confronts Soccer's Vicious Underside

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Anyone who has visited Paris' Parc des Princes stadium over the years has long anticipated the tragedy that former French national soccer goalie Bernard Lama last week lamented with a platitude wrapped in hindsight. "Everyone knew that when the first death from fan violence occurred in France, it would happen in Paris," commented Lama less than 24 hours after a supporter of his former team Paris Saint-Germain was shot and killed by plain clothes police officer trying to protect a young Jewish man from an anti-Semitic mob of nearly 150 marauding PSG fans. "All the elements were there. It has never a question of if, but when."

On the night of November 23, shortly after PSG suffered a resounding 4-2 defeat to Israel's Tel Aviv Hapoel in a pan-European competition, seething PSG fans were allowed — despite the presence of hundreds of police and riot cops — to assemble outside the stadium and stew in their notoriously dangerous juices. Along came Yanniv Hazout, 25, a Paris supporter who had come to the game sporting the colors of his favorite club, Hapoel. With shouts of "kill the Jews", and "the dirty Jew must die," the mob set after the fleeing Hazout. Spotting a lynching in the making, plain-clothes policeman Antoine Granomort thrust himself between Hazout and the mob, fending off kicks and punches with sprays of tear gas. With the horde's racist frenzy escalating at the sight of the Jewish Hazout shielded by Granomont, who is black, the cop pulled out his service revolver, ordered his attackers to back off, and fired shots when they surged anew. One of those bullets injured a PSG fan before its ricochet killed Julien Quemener — a 25-year-old season ticket holder. Amid the recoil and confusion, Granomont spirited Hazout into a nearby McDonald's, which the band of thugs then besieged before police reinforcements arrived.

Although friends and family say Quemener was an apolitical, non-violent PSG enthusiast, he was a member of the "Boulogne Boys," which along with the Supras d'Auteuil, Authentiks and similar fan associations are the most rambunctious, testosterone-addled groups that fill the Parc. The hard core of such groups are the "ultras" — hundreds of racism-spewing thugs who regularly provoke violence both home and away, with rival club fans and even with black and Arab supporters of PSG. Though that neo-fascist clique is small compared with the 48,500 people who fill the stadium on match days, its influence is often evident when thousands of "normal" fans take up the ultras' chants of racial obscenities directed at opposing black players, and at PSG's own black players when the team plays badly. In 1995, Liberian soccer legend George Weah played his last game for PSG as racist banners and fascist symbols hung from rails; a special anti-racism themed match in 2004 inspired ultras and thousands of easily led fans to "monkey grunt" whenever a black player got the ball. Indeed, some PSG ultras have mockingly denied anti-Semitism motivated their slander of Hapoel fans and their attack on Hazout, explaining it was the same unbridled belligerence they direct at all "enemies."

To be sure, the PSG "ultras" have established a reputation for equal-opportunity thuggery: During a 2001 Champions' League game against Istanbul side Galatasaray, 56 people were injured — miraculously none were killed — when Paris fans stormed the visitor's section and savaged Turkish fans. In 2004, the bus transporting arch-rival Marseille to the Parc was ambushed by Paris "ultras" throwing bottles and heavy metal petanque balls.

Club officials responded to Quemener's death by holding the police responsible for events outside the stadium. Pundits appear to be taking some strange comfort in the fact that France's hooligan problem is limited to Paris. Under pressure from a public outcry, PSG said it was closing a 2,000-seat section where ultras gather. That's certainly preferable to its previous policies of appeasement that granted salaried usher and security jobs to notorious hooligans in the hopes they'd keep their chums in order during games. But it's far from the decisive eradication the situation merits. Indeed, PSG fans say the section closure will only get the thugs moving to other spots in the Parc — whose video surveillance system encourages most "ultras" to reserve their worst violence for the unmonitored streets outside anyway. That theory motivated state officials to postpone Sunday's match against Toulouse — saying they felt renewed violence was inevitable.

That's a nice start, but permanent steps are required. The real cure will require club, city, and police officials to take radical measures to force violent ultras into order, or away from stadia. As British efforts to vanquish hooliganism showed, coordinated identification of all known and potential thugs is essential to control their movements on game days and prevent attempts of banned fans from gaining access to stadia; better policing techniques adapted to soccer thugs are invaluable in defusing violent situations before they explode. If that can't be managed — and quickly — the state should deal with PSG the way it does any night-club, bar, disco, or other leisure business whose customers pose a public danger: Shut it down.