Exclusive | Sociologist Nicolas Hourcade on France’s war on football fans: “Ultras need to be treated as normal citizens.”

The start of the new season has seen France rocked by the sudden appearance in public debate of homophobia in football stadiums, and the continued struggle of away fans.

Nicolas Hourcade is a sociologist specialising in football supporters and a teacher at the École Centrale de Lyon, an engineering school. He was notably a co-author of “The Green Book of Supporterism”, a publicly commissioned study of football fans and of propositions to prevent violence in football, published in 2010. Today, he brings us his expertise in breaking down some of the key elements in the crisis that French football supporters and authorities are facing.

Let’s start by talking about why so many football supporters in France are upset. Firstly, who are the people concerned?

Let me start by saying that recently, there has been a political will from the government, specifically from the Minister of Sports (Roxana Maracineanu) and from Marlène Schiappa (the Secretary of Equality between men and women), to fight against homophobia in sports. Because neither of them being was used to going to football stadiums, they were shocked by the insults they may have heard. This caused two different problems. The first one is that between their declared intentions in the spring and the season’s return in July-August, there was no work done with the clubs or the supporters’ associations to define what would be done and how. Therefore, the method may have shocked not just the supporters associations but also the clubs, who hadn’t been warned. If there has been all this tension, it’s because things haven’t been done in the right order. The objective wasn’t defined, nor how.

This returns me to your question. The second problem is that this policy of stopping matches or sanctioning clubs for homophobic chants follows a trend of increasing conflict between the authorities in football – sporting authorities as well as public ones – and ultra groups; the ones generally behind the goals, creating atmosphere etc. These match interruptions and the sanctions of closed stands in Nancy or Ajaccio are added to other problems that have nothing to do with homophobia, notably a collection of sanctions that ultras believe to be unfair. There have been a number of bans and restrictions on traveling fans. Holistically speaking, the ultras, who are the most hit by these sanctions, think this is unfair and that the authorities are looking not only to limit violence but also to keep them away from stadiums.

They therefore have a very combative relationship with the authorities, notably focusing on the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP). It is the LFP, specifically its Discipline Commission, that bans pyrotechnics and that closes stands. Referees interrupt matches on orders from the LFP. The ultras have therefore not so much been responding to the fight against homophobia as to the ever-increasing discrimination they feel they are living.

The authorities told them they were being discriminating and the ultras’ response was “We’re the ones who have been discriminated against for years. Homophobia is an excuse for you to chase us from the stadium”. So, in the last weekends, there has been like a bidding war of chants: each one going a little step further to provoke the LFP and criticise issues that go way beyond the fight against homophobia. It looks like a dead-end. But we have maybe started leaving the vicious cycle: last Ligue 1 weekend, the delegates and referees stopped interrupting matches.

Either we stay in this dialogue of the deaf and everyone loses. Or we bring everyone to the table and look to advance on two subjects. First, the fight against discrimination, while explaining to supporters the impact that their chants may have, the way in which they may be felt by some people. Secondly, we need to address supporters’ rights and especially the possibilities for them to travel. Right now, since they feel that it’s one more punishment on them, they are not self-criticising even on points on which they should. If we can make advances on their rights, maybe we can also make advances on discrimination. A few Wednesdays ago, a meeting was organised between the LFP, the leaders of ultra-groups, and anti-discrimination associations, which is a step in the right direction.

In terms of diversity of the fans, there are different positions as reflected through the banners. Some of them criticise the LFP and the authorities specifically; other are very trashy, flirting with homophobia; others are taking a clear step back to say, “We are not homophobic, we have just had enough of being stigmatised. Each group is different. Some have long been involved in the fight against discrimination, especially racism or sexism. Very few groups have worked on homophobia though. There are groups who are sensitive to the issue; others don’t care. Within a given group there can be differences: some members will say that language like “pédé” is not homophobic, while others find it unacceptable.

Are travel bans always legitimate?

The decrees are not always legitimate. In some cases, yes. The possibility of stopping fans from traveling, or restricting travel so that it is supervised, was created by the law in 2011. The goal was to avoid violence in exceptional conflict situations: PSG – Marseille, Lyon – Saint-Etienne, Bastia – Nice. For situations like this, it is understandable that there be restrictions. If there is a terrorism risk or a movement like the Gilets Jaunes, you can understand. The problem is that starting in 2015, with the State of Emergency*, prefects massively used this disposition under the pretext that there were fewer police forces available to cover football matches, because they were mobilised for more important matters. The problem is that these decrees have become the easy way out: each time there is a match that could be a little complicated, there is a decree, based on the precautionary principle, etc. If you ban travel because of a real risk, sure. But if is overused like this, it creates problems with regards to respecting civil liberties, but also in terms of capacities of maintaining order.

Rennes fans have decided not to travel to the upcoming derby in Nantes, citing their fear of police brutality. Why is there such tension and stress?  

Today, the French Police is not very well prepared for organising football matches. It is not accustomed to handling crowds. We saw this at Euro 2016 with the incidents at the England – Russia match in Marseille. These last twenty years, which countries in Western Europe have had problems during the organisation of a World Cup or Euro? France. At World Cup 98 or Euro 2016, there were incidents. It shows that there is not sufficient policing expertise, because it is very complicated to handle crowd-control matters, and if you don’t practice, it can’t happen. Processes to prepare for a match vary a lot from one prefecture to the next. Having more transparent and rigorous processes would be a positive.

On a side note, I am a panelist for a foundation called the Daniel-Nivel Foundation. Nivel was a member of the Gendarmerie who was severely injured by German fans in Lens at World Cup 98. We are working on reducing the animosity between fans and police. In 2017, we held workshops with the two groups so they could speak to each other. We are trying to implement in the next few months more concrete decisions: to avoid having decrees two days before a match for unclear reasons. We want it to be discussed between the away teams, their fans; that there be a real dialogue. And that there be on the pitch a designated policeman, someone clearly identified who is the contact point for the visiting fans, which is not the case today.

The French police, compared to other European polices forces, has a habit of demonstrating strength, as we have seen with the handling of the Gilets Jaunes. They like occupying the street, being in direct contact. This creates tension, violence, that is less prevalent in other countries, where the method is less frontal. There are clashes between supporters and police because of that tradition, but also because football fans have such a negative image as beaufs, idiots, or fascists that police are convinced to be in the right by hitting them.

There is real work to be done on the handling of fans by police. But there are two sides: you have some ultras who wear “All cops are bastards” shirts or hold other antagonising positions, and on the other side the police don’t have the right procedures in place and sometimes overreact, like in Nantes-Rennes last year. There is  huge work to be done on policing culture in France as well as in better anticipating football situations so as to be better organised – at the moment, sometimes, on low-risk matches, there is a strong police presence. The police say, “Yes, but a football match isn’t like rugby or something else, if ultras set off pyrotechnics or if they get angry against the players or the club, there needs to be police to hold them in place.” So, we have to bring all of this to the table and question why things are this way, but also examine the behaviour of certain fans: some of them are very radical.

You spoke of the negative image of football fans. In France, there is a strong division between football fans and the country’s elites. Is football excluded from what is considered to be “Culture” in France?

Yes, clearly, and football does not have the same role in popular culture as it does in England, Belgium or Germany. For a long time, football fans were associated to Cabu’s “Beauf”, a low-key brute. So even though there always were football amateurs across social levels, football was often discredited by the elite as an “opium of the people”, and alienated for following their team. We are in a country where there is a stronger reticence to football fans than elsewhere. Because football is considered as a minor thing, it’s easy to ban traveling fans, whereas in England this would be much different.

There is another problem: sometimes when we act, we do it in total ignorance of the situation. For example, the manner in which the government has acted against homophobia reveals an ignorance of the situation which has led to counter-productive actions. It’s a shame because the original intention is positive, but since they don’t understand the context in which we are acting, or the people facing them, the actions are not appropriate. However, there are changes, that can be very effective. Since 1998, the elites have become more interested in football. They wondered how it was possible that so many people could celebrate a French victory in the streets. There was a beginning of reflection. Additionally, it is the period of time during which football on a European scale started becoming a major economic activity. People who didn’t previously pay attention to football started doing so.

They started to be shocked by some of the things they saw, especially given that the late 90’s was a time of intensification of supporters’ movements and the emergence of ultras, who insult their opponents, etc. There is a little bit of, as François Ruffin (leftist member of the National Assembly) says, “They stole our football”. They didn’t like it, so they made some changes. But to be more optimistic, now, with more and more people enjoying football there is starting to be some debates. In a recent period, we might say that we caused chaos in the stadiums, failing to either advance in the fight against homophobia or in the fight for supporters’ rights.

But on the other hand, we have brought these issues to public attention, and there are a number of intellectuals or sports journalists covering these topics very aptly. On the 9th of September, I testified before a Parliamentary Commission that was established to re-work the regime of stadium bans and more globally to work on supporterism. And the MP, Sacha Houlié (from the centrist majority), who started this is from the Vienne department but identifies as a Marseille fan. In the past few years, there have been supporters’ clubs established at the National Assembly by its members. Little by little, people who are part of the elite – artists, intellectuals, or politicians – are coming out as football fans. That can contribute to a better knowledge of our systems.

Is there coordination between different supporters’ groups?

For now, not much, just some informal exchanges. Tomorrow (last Saturday) there will be the National Assembly of Supporters which regroups all the ultra groups. I don’t know what they will say about it. For now, each group has expressed its position but there has been no collective action nation-wide from the ultras. It could happen.

Where are the positives for France?

With regards to racism, one of the specificities of French stadia is that there are relatively few manifestations of racism, compared to say Italy or Spain. It’s interesting because, 30 years ago, there were monkey noises aimed at black players. It was not very frequent put it could happen. At one point, Marseille fans threw bananas at Joseph Antoine Bell (in 1990). It wasn’t frequent, but at the time people qualified it as “folklore”. Today, this doesn’t happen. There can be some individual acts like last year at Dijon – Amiens, or fascist groups with banners. But those banners get confiscated very quickly and no one really sees it, it is not comparable to what happens in Italy. We can explain the change away from this with several factors: first there was the mobilisation by LICRA (a French association that fights racism and antisemitism) in the 90’s.

The authorities made certain symbols illegal, such as the swastika or the Celtic cross. Today, these are never seen anymore. Stewards and authorities are very strict about it. There is a third factor that is very interesting: football fans themselves have reacted and looked to stop chants that were said to be “folklore” but actually had a racist character.

Some understood they were emitting a racist image, which they did not want to have. Some groups have declared themselves anti-racist, are open to all and fight discriminations; while other groups have adopted apolitical stances, refusing any behaviour that might suggest some political affiliation. So racist incidents have completely disappeared. That does not mean some individuals are not racist or homophobic. And yes, some people in football stadiums vote for the far right. But there are not collective manifestations of racism. So that is one positive point, which requires some vigilance.

Then there is something else, regarding the place of football fans in a cultural context. We are increasingly looking to Germany, saying “Germany is great, there is attacking football, plenty of fans in the stadium and great atmospheres, etc”. What’s interesting is to see how they made it there. 20 years ago, German stadiums had only 20,000 people, there was a lot of violence, a lot of racism. They worked to get rid of those, while keeping active fans.

They valorised the fans who were making noise, creating an atmosphere. They always kept standing terraces and affordable prices for active fans, so as to keep a positive popular culture. There is still violence and there can be hooligan problems, but generally away from the stadium. But Germany built the popularity of football into their culture. I like to say Germany won the 2006 World Cup: maybe not the trophy, but they player brilliant football and were able to welcome the whole world without major incident, and in full stadiums. Little by little, this has become the case in Bundesliga, which has become the most attractive league today (in terms of fan experience).

It’s very interesting because France has not benefitted from its fans like this. At some points, like at the start of this decade, there was even plans to remove ultras from stadiums. It was done at PSG, where there was a hooligan problem, so they decided to ban all the ultras. But today, the world of French football is rethinking this based on the German model. PSG has tried an English model as well, but without having fully understood it, because it is often caricatured.

The English model that was put in place in the 90’s is zero-tolerance for violent fans and a rebuilding of football: stadiums made to be comfortable and welcoming, higher prices to increase the commercialisation of these stadiums. We often hear that this contributed to distancing working classes, which is not false. But there was more to it than that: they realised that if football was to be an economic activity, there would have to be a place for stakeholder fans. And if some fans can’t afford to go to the stadium anymore, the club needs to act in the community. The English model is based on security and commercialisation, the German model is more security, integration, and atmosphere. France has not yet decided to do things like the English.

The English have managed to keep their stadiums full because there is such a long waiting line of people wanting to go that in Premier League its not a problem. In France, if you remove the most active fans or multiply the ticket prices, the stadiums will empty. So, the French are looking towards Germany, and even the English are looking back: how can they preserve security while re-opening safe standing? Germany and England have each had coherent plans to handle football as entertainment, which is what we are missing in France. We can hope that the current situation might push towards something like that.

Finally, is there anything you think is missing from this debate? Anything the general public is not sufficiently conscious of?

There are two problems. For homophobia we need to understand two things. Firstly, there is de facto a homophobia problem in men’s sports. There is a culture of the masculine athlete belonging to a macho traditional masculinity, and we must work on this so that all young men wishing to play sports can do so without having to fit that mould. There is also a reflection to be had concerning some of the chants. I’m not a fan of banning all insults in stadia, but supporters must reflect on what they say and there needs to be a line. For example, anything that says “Pédé” (homosexual), we should stop. However, I don’t think it’s crucial to stop a match because of “La Ligue, on t’encule”.

Secondly, on the fans’ side, we need to take note of why there’s been a reaction in this way. They feel that they have been discriminated against for years, and now we tell them that they are the discriminating ones. They feel that no one is interested in their rights. And it’s a problem because they are citizens, voters, and when you treat a part of the population badly there are consequences in its relationship with authorities in the way they vote, and others. Globally, the ultras world feels victim of an unfair repression, and at some point, they become right in thinking it because they mistreated.

They need to be treated as true, normal citizens, with the same rights and the same obligations. And that is to say that if they do something stupid, they should be punished. But when they are punished so much for innocuous things, they no longer respect any justified sanctions either. We need to exit this problem with dignity and recognise that supporters have rights, and that we must stop this discrediting of football fans and treating them like idiots, but on the other hand that they also question themselves and evolve on some behaviours. It’s not about making stadiums into a perfect world where everyone sits and there are no bad words, but we need to put some limits on what is intolerable.

*After the November 2015 attacks, François Hollande declared a State of Emergency which was extended several times, lasting until October 2017. At that point, however, many special measures allowing the Interior Ministry or prefects to restrict certain liberties under the State of Emergency were passed into common law.



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