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Jan 9, 2007

Hooliganism: The French disease?

A young fan chased through the streets post-game by a horde of opposing supporters baying for his blood to assuage the defeat suffered by their team on the pitch.

They catch him, a policeman pulls him from the mob's clutches, only to then himself be attacked…he falls to the ground, pulls his gun and fires. One of the crowd is seriously injured, another's family will never see their son again.

No, not a Hollywood film, not even the dark days of English football hooliganism. This is November 23, 2006, in Paris, where a UEFA Cup match between Paris Saint Germain and Hapoel Tel Aviv ended with 25-year-old Julien Quemener being shot dead.

Despite the outrage, hold back your tears for the deceased who - if reports are to be believed - was a member of the Boulogne Boys, PSG's and France's most notorious, extreme right-wing group of football hooligans whose motif of a skull wearing a top hat gives more than a hint of their activities.

PSG's association with violence may not be quite as old as the trade plied by the prostitutes in the nearby Bois de Boulogne, but for a club only born in 1970, it can lay claim to a history embarrassingly and extensively scarred by hooliganism.

'What surprised me is that someone died,' admitted Thierry Vautrat, a football journalist with the major regional paper Sud Ouest since 1993. 'But the way the supporters acted didn't surprise me at all as everyone knows that the Parisian supporters are amongst the worst you can find in our country.

'We knew that they were capable of something like that. They all have pro-Nazi leanings. We knew that one day something like that would happen and they probably took the Hapoel Tel Aviv game as an opportunity to try and beat someone up.'

Formed in 1985, the Boulogne Boys - in part christened after the end in which they sit at the Parc des Princes - owe the other half of their name to their misplaced reverence for the English hooligan of the 1980s.

While English football has embraced the ooh-la-la of Arsene Wenger and Thierry Henry, PSG's hooligans have imported the zeitgeist of Heysel.

The Boulogne Boys' love affair with hooliganism started in the city of romance itself after a 1984 'rumble' following a friendly between England and the hosts led to a surprise 'result' for the French and thus was born the legend on which their association was forged.

The cycle of violence has been spiralling upwards ever since - here's a snippet of the 'highlights.'

A member of the French riot police was badly beaten in 1993, which led to PSG becoming the first French club to install stewards as in-stadium security; a supporter of arch-rivals Marseille was left paralysed after a seat-cum-missile struck him on the head - PSG bought him a computer by way of 'compensation'; while the 2001 Champions League encounter with Galatasaray was interrupted as rival supporters ran amok on the Parc des Princes terraces.

UEFA banned PSG from using their ground for three European games, but still the club's hierarchy failed to take action, and when then-president Francis Graille tried to turn the screw on the troublemakers in 2004, he received death threats and had coffins delivered to his home before backing down and relieving his head of security - a no-nonsense former police commissioner - of his duties.

Only this season, then-Rennes chairman Emmanuel Cueff said at the Bretons' game in the capital two friends witnessed one of France's many men of African origin being chased by PSG yobs, while on an away day in November, the 'prey' was not quite so lucky.

A black Le Mans supporter was badly beaten by four Parisian hooligans, one of whom went on to describe himself in court as 'the stereotype of a skinhead. A person of the white race, who gives facist salutes.'

'Politicians have been in the stands of the Parc des Princes for the last twenty years, they must have seen the Nazi salutes,' says Lawrence Leenhardt, a freelance journalist and correspondant for France's leading sports media.

'They merely had to turn their heads and do something about it. The photos of supporters we've seen on the news are archive photos, so we know who they are. I don't know why they didn't do anything. But we shouldn't have had to wait for a death before acting.'

Sensitive to the need for their fledgling organisation to develop a passionate support worthy of a club from the capital, the club's directors followed what France's League against Racism and Anti-Semitism called 'an ambiguous policy,' turning a blind eye to the excesses of their more unsavoury followers in order to preserve the ambiance inside the stadium.

But after years of laissez-faire, the will both from the club and political circles to do something to solve the problem now seems to be there.

Perhaps motivated by threats from the Paris mayor's office to pull the plug on their 2.3m euro hand-out from the city, current club president Alain Cayzac talked of 'an illness that needs curing' and promised to 'do everything in [his] power to restore the situation.'

And with his conservative boss Nicolas Sarkozy hoping to score points ahead of this year's presidential elections, Michel Lepoix at the Ministry of the Interior couched his battlecry in black-and-white George Dubya terms.

'If they want a war, we'll give them a war,' said Lepoix, known as 'Monsieur Anti-Hooligan.'

'We're no longer in a footballing context. If their method of making war is to chase Jews because they're Jews or chase others because of their skin colour, then OK. We're ready. There'll be a pre-November 23 and a post-November 23.'

The two most notorious sectors of the Parc des Princes - those frequented by the Boulogne Boys and the ultra-violent independants - were closed and the home game following the incident was postponed in a bid to diffuse the tension, while a five-point plan to deal with the problem was hastily drawn up.

Ticketing for PSG games will now be tightly controlled through official outlets, supporters' associations involved in violence can now be dissolved, while the number of fans banned from the Parc des Princes has more than tripled since the incident.

But the moves provoked accusations of political opportunism on the part of Sarkozy, who also attracted fierce criticism for discussing the situation with leaders of supporters groups, including - incredibly - Pierre-Louis Dupont, chief of the Boulogne Boys and currently serving a three-year stadium ban after bringing a flare into a game in 2005.

And for all the fanfare, the effect of the measures themselves appears limited.

The power to ban violent fans from stadia came into force last March, but had - and still has - barely been used; supporters from dissolved associations will not necessarily be banned from attending games, while many of the ringleaders operate in the murky waters outside the remit of organised supporters' groups.

Ironically, many are advocating the 'zero tolerance' approach pioneered by the English in rooting out their hooligan element, but Lawrence Leenhardt believes the French powers-that-be lack the backbone to back up their tough talking with equally tough action.

'They don't dare do what they need to do,' she claims. 'Maybe the directors don't want to be the ones remembered for taking steps to forbid people from going to the stadium. The measures are too weak compared to the scale of the problem. I think if England has managed to solve that problem, then we should follow their example.

'You have got to fight fire with fire. All of those who have a history of violence have to be stopped from going to the stadium. What difference does it make if there are four hundred less people in the ground?'

Vincent Bregevin, a journalist and PSG season ticket holder seated adjacent to the Boulogne kop for the last ten years, agrees.

I think if England has managed to solve that problem, then we should follow their example.
Lawrence Leenhardt
'What happened after the game with Hapoel Tel Aviv was what was needed to begin the development of an anti-hooligan strategy,' he says. 'For more than a decade, people have been willing someone to do something about these PSG supporters, but no-one has lifted a finger. They've been ruining my matches for ten years with their racist chants. England has cleaned out its stands. That's what we have to do at PSG.'

But while the Boulogne Boys are undoubtedly the vanguard, they are not alone.

A young policeman lost two fingers in Nice after picking up an agricultural flare thrown by a Marseille fan in October; three were hospitalised after brawls between Nice and Saint Etienne supporters before their sides' game in November; while Strasbourg's hard core hooligan element, the Meinau Boys, invited their Feyenoord counterparts to 'participate' at a home game just days after the Dutch had marred a UEFA Cup tie at Nancy.

According to sports daily L'Equipe, a number of professional clubs have their associated hooligan groups, most with a British style moniker, including the delightfully entitled Nancy Casual Firm, and numbering in their hundreds at PSG down to a handful at Strasbourg.

But Lawrence Leenhardt warns the death of Julien Quemener has brought to the surface sentiments which had always been bubbling under at even the most sedate of clubs.

'The problem is that people at other clubs say, 'It's only a problem in Paris, that could never happen at our club.' The fans at Bordeaux say they are anti-racist, but they unfurled a banner which read 'RIP Julien.'

'He might have been a supporter, but he was also an aggressor. That shocks me. That has happened at all the clubs, even those who proclaim themselves anti-racist. People have forgotten all about the violence that provoked his death.'

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