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Troubled Paris has yet to catch football fever

Jonathan HardingJune 23, 2016

Paris has been scarred by the events of the past year. As DW found out, with the European Championship well underway, France’s cultured capital remains largely unaffected by the football festival.

Frankreich Paris Wetter
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Brinon

Along Quai de Jemmapes, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, an area of canal and markets that could be mistaken for Amsterdam, people are reading by the water or taking a snooze as shopkeepers restock their fruit and vegetable crates. Nearby streets are full of Indian restaurants, mobile phone shops and a network of rusted wires guiding trains down their tracks.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the tournament was being held somewhere far away. A Euro 2016 advert promoting a multicultural tournament – a child holding two scarves stitched together with German and Polish colors, forming the word "Polmany" – looks out of place.

The vast majority of foreign football fans arriving in France have been in high spirits, ready to party and enjoy the fun. But recent labor strikes, rising unemployment and the threat of terrorism have left the French capital largely immune to the football fever.

"It's very calm here because Paris is not a football city," says Joachim Barbier, author of “Ce Pays Qui N'Aime Pas Le Foot” (The Country that Doesn't Love Football). "Paris doesn't need football to exist."

As in all great cultural cities in the world, there's a lot more on offer in Paris than football. Paris St. Germain are a big European club, but the French capital doesn't have anywhere near the footballing tradition of, say, London. In Paris, football is just one item on the menu.

Football beyond the capital

The centers of football fervor in this country are outside the capital. Barbier says Marseille, Lille or even St. Etienne have created a mood that something special is happening.

"It has to do with the economic revolution," he says. "If you go to industrial cities, there's a lot of football but in most of the cities it's just another story. That's probably the reason France doesn't look as passionate as other countries."

Schriftsteller Joachim Barbier
Joachim Barbier spoke with DW on the sidelines of the lackluster fanfare in ParisImage: DW/J. Harding

When France aren't playing, the attendance at the main fan zone behind the Eiffel Tower is only around 30,000 – a third of the expected numbers. The passion of the rest of Europe for Euro 2016 has taken France by surprise. Aside from the hardscore fans, who need no conversion, most of the host nation has yet to develop that sort of enthusiasm.

"The French are what I would call supporters of the conditions," says Barbier. "That means the team has to win, play well and display an image of the core values of the country."

Paris' past still painful

If France can make the quarterfinals, then Parisians will probably sit up and take notice. Until then, some residents of the capital will continue to grumble about the incovenience of the tournament, while others will be inhibited by the past.

"For ages waving the flag was something ultra-nationalists and extreme right-wing people were doing," Barbier says. "Singing the 'Marseillaise' was not something we were not doing at all. But it has been something we've sung in the stadiums for the last ten, fifteen years.”

Further out in the 18th, Tarik and Marouane run a knock-off clothes shop. The Euro 2016 kits are tucked away behind Hugo Boss t-shirts and Nike shoes.

"We bought a lot of them and thought people would buy jerseys, but that hasn't happened," said Tarik. The pair go on to tell me how fewer tourists visit Paris nowadays, in part because of terrorism.

At the Place de Republique, the terrible memories are palpable. French flags draped around the stone lion at the heart of the square and accompanied by hand-written notes about peace and love remind people of what this city has been through.

"It's like France has lost its innocence, like Paris has lost its innocence," says Barbier. "It's going to take a while before life is good, but there's something up in our heads. You can't really forget it."

Standing here, you wouldn't know that many of Europe's nations are in the country to play football. Paris and France have far greater concerns - even if the hosts win the tournament.

Place de la Republique, Paris
The Place de la Republique: Repository of Parisian pain, frustration, and hopeImage: DW/J. Harding

Chance for something special

"[Victory] would unite the nation and it would be a sort of fresh air balloon to the people, but just for weeks," says Barbier. "After that, social reality will be back. The unemployment rate is still very high, and the government is unpopular at a level we've never experienced before."

Back when France won the World Cup in 1998, conditions were different. Barbier says that French people now are tired and that the country's unexpected win 18 years ago is a distant memory.

"Since that we've going through a lot of issues and you see a very divided country, which can be compared with what's happening at the moment with Brexit," Barbier adds. "I wouldn't say it's a depressed country, but I wouldn't say the mood is one ready to get loose with football."

On top of everything else, French police are stretched, sometimes over-aggressive and occasionally ineffective.

"I think what we’ve seen in Marseille and other places in France since the beginning of the tournament is a total failure of this anti-hooliganism police unit," Barbier tells me. He adds that in any other country, those responsible would have been fired.

Perhaps if France make the quarterfinals, Paris might start to get excited in the belief that Les Bleus can win the title. But for now, the French capital remains a troubled city with more than sports on its mind.