Rumours of an imminent civil war were greatly exaggerated
Legions of Paris riot police supported by armoured cars and water cannons attempted to live up to a much anticipated “civil war” following France’s defeat of Morocco in the World Cup on Wednesday night.
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It followed warnings that victory for the former colonial masters would prompt members of the country’s North African diaspora to riot.
“On Wednesday, everyone is afraid of a war — a guerrilla war, a civil war — and we do not want the Champs-Élysées to be transformed into a battlefield,” said Jeanne d’Hauteserre, mayor of the French capital’s 8th arrondissement before kick-off.
D’Hauteserre, a member of the opposition Les Republicains party, pushed for some 2000 law enforcement officials to line “the world’s most beautiful avenue” and the areas around it. She predicted people “only really coming to smash things up with iron bars,” and that the worst offenders would be linked to Morocco, which was a French protectorate up until 1956.
Colonial angst lingers on, is the argument of these politicians, and football brings out the worst in those intent on smashing up a Republic they have never really learned to live in.
Elsewhere in the country, clashes were more serious. In Montpellier a 14-year-old boy died in hospital after being hit by a car: the vehicle had apparently been surrounded by supporters of the Moroccan team. Further videos from outlets in the city showed confrontations and what appeared to be firework rockets exchanged between sets of fans.
However, the only difficulty those of us on the Champs-Élysées faced was from armed thugs more politically aligned to Madame D’Hauteserre.
A Paris police spokesman told Unherd: “A group of 40 people linked to the ultra-Right made their way to the Champs-Élysées after the match, and they were all arrested, in particular for carrying prohibited weapons. They clearly wanted to fight it out on the Champs.”
There were 151 arrests related to the football across the city, and most were for such “preventative reasons”, and for letting off fireworks, but acts of serious violence and vandalism were kept to a minimum. “The vast majority of fans were well-behaved, and simply wanted to support their teams,” the spokesman added. “Those intent on violence were stopped”.
There were similar scenes in other major cities, including Lyon, where police reported “hooded youths attacking anyone who looked like they came from a North African background,” after the game, and then being arrested.
Back in Paris, there were plenty of shouts of “Allez les Bleus !” and blue-red-and-white Tricolours being waved around enthusiastically, but the police control operation largely worked. “It’s the same old story,” said 19-year-old student Youssef Bennani, who said he supported both France and Morocco. “Those with a political agenda want to be aggressive on occasions like this, and the police sometimes provoke it, but the majority of people aren’t interested in any kind of trouble.
As Mr Bennai spoke, a handful of youths taunted the police, who responded by launching half-hearted charges, brandishing shields and batons.
“They rush towards us in the hope we will run away,” said France supporter Jennifer Moulin, 30. “If we stand about, and they don’t like the look of us, then they might spray us with tear gas. They treat those with brown skin the worst, however.”
The decolonisation process passed off relatively peacefully in Morocco, but not so in neighbouring Algeria, where hundreds of thousands died in a savage war of independence that lasted for eight years up until 1962.
Tensions from the conflict certainly linger, especially on suburban council estates, where those from immigrant backgrounds still complain about discrimination in every aspect of life, from housing to employment.
Green-and-white Algerian flags were certainly in evidence on the Champs but — on a freezing December night — there were no significant protests, and certainly no civil war. In Paris at least, this was a night to celebrate the magnificent football, not post-imperial angst.