15:37 Jun. 7, 2016
Security services play out possible disaster scenarios in run-up to tournament
Fans were leaving Lyon's football stadium after a mock Northern Ireland-Ukraine match, when two fake suicide-bombers pretended to blow themselves up in the crowd. Volunteers posing as fans played dead, dozens more were injured, and the crowd panicked and charged. Police rushed to secure the area while paramedics treated victims oozing fake blood.
This simulated disaster scene last week was one of at least 30 doomsday scenarios staged by police and emergency services across France in the run-up to the Euro 2016 football tournament, which begins on 10 June. As France prepares to host more than 2.5 million ticketholders and millions more fans across 10 cities in one of Europe's biggest events, the government is planning the heaviest sports security operation in recent history.
Just over six months after the Paris terrorist attacks killed 130 people at restaurants, a rock concert and the national stadium, President François Hollande said terrorism remains the biggest threat to the event despite strikes and protests against his proposed new labour laws.
Possible disaster scenarios rehearsed over the past two months have ranged from suicide bombs, to a staged chemical and biological gas attack on revellers in a football fan zone, where over 1,000 police trainees in Nîmes played the part of supporters watching a match on a giant screen hit by a mysterious gas, and then caught in a stampeding crowd. Security services in gas masks and protective suits rehearsed decontamination.
"We are doing everything to avoid a terrorist attack, and we're preparing to react to one," the interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said. But the exact nature of any risk to the Euro tournament, other than the general terrorist threat that still weighs on France, remains unclear. The country suffered three major attacks last year – before the November atrocities came January's attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a kosher grocery store.
Officials say there is an ongoing general threat to France — which is seen by its head of internal intelligence as the country most under target from jihadi terrorism — but there are no known specific plans to target the Euro 2016 event itself. The tournament is taking place under "a very high level of threat and yet no precise project has been detected," Michel Delpuech, the prefect in charge of policing in Lyon, said during one of the disaster practice runs.
After the US State Department warned last week that "Euro Cup stadiums, fan zones, and unaffiliated entertainment venues broadcasting the tournaments in France and across Europe represent potential targets for terrorists," the French prime minister, Manuel Valls, told there was "no foundation" for a specific US warning about Euro 2016. Following the Brussels airport and metro attacks on 22 March, the French daily Libération reported that one of the bombers had told investigators that his French-Belgian terror cell — which Hollande has said is now dismantled — had originally intended to target Euro 2016.
This week a Frenchman arrested on the Ukraine-Polish border with an arsenal of weapons and explosives was accused by Ukrainian police of plotting a string of terror attacks before and during Euro 2016. French police are insisting that they have no evidence the 25-year-old, said to hold ultra-nationalist views, was planning terrorism, and suggested he may have been smuggling arms. The Paris police chief, Michel Cadot, on Monday repeated that "there is no specific threat against any [Euro 2016] site".
France's state of emergency, in place since the November attacks, has been extended until after both the football tournament and the Tour de France cycle race are over at the end of July — allowing police to conduct searches without a warrant and place people under house arrest outside the normal legal process. A record 90,000 security staff will be deployed for Euro 2016 – including 42,000 police, 30,000 gendarmes as well as many of the 10,000 soldiers in combat fatigues currently patrolling the country in the anti-terrorism protection plan known as Operation Sentinelle.
More than 13,000 private security guards have been employed. French police are currently under pressure after heavy deployment to months of protests over labour reforms, a large ongoing riot police presence at the migrant camp in Calais and six months of a state of emergency which led to night raids and house arrests.