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The extreme fans of French football

The ultras fans of Paris St-Germain unfurl banners and ignite flares during a Ligue 1 clash with Nice at Parc des Princes in 2017. Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

EMMA LUCK on Paris St-Germain’s extraordinarily powerful fan culture and its dark and troubling history.

What is the greatest spectacle in Paris? The Folies Bergère? Moulin Rouge? Pour moi, non. Rather, I’d recommend making your way to the Parc des Princes when Paris Saint-Germain are playing at home. The engaging drama you will find on display there is not necessarily taking place on the pitch (PSG dominate a notoriously uncompetitive league, leading to some fairly one-sided encounters), but in the stands, where supporters provide a 90-minute extravaganza of light, colour, singing and pyrotechnics as part of one of the greatest experiences in world football.

As kick-off approaches, the Auteuil stand behind one of the goals becomes awash with swirling banners and flags as different factions of fans make their presence known. Following some unseen signal they unveil red, white and blue banners to create a giant PSG flag spanning the end of the stadium.

As the whistle blows to start the match, a lone fan armed with a loud speaker starts up a continuous series of chants and songs as banner after banner is revealed, some of them big enough to cover the entire stand.

The display is slick, as the beginning of one tableau fades and another quickly replaces it. The flares come in a variety of colours, the pyrotechnics lighting up the stadium and almost obliterating the crowd with vibrant smoke. As the spectators in the rest of the stadium watch the football, they keep one eye on the Auteuil Stand just to see what comes next.

Such choreography takes immense organisation and those coordinating the spectacle are PSG’s ‘ultras’, the club’s most fanatical supporters. Ultras are a football phenomenon which originated in Italy – the term means ‘beyond’, ‘intransigent’ or ‘extreme’. They are organised groups of fans, responsible not just for creating displays inside stadiums but also developing a structured, elaborate subculture connected to their club.

They are complex groups – cloaked in secrecy – usually centred on a core group of founders who tend to hold executive control, with smaller subgroups often organised by location or friendship. From their earliest days, however, the ultras have been a controversial force in football, often identified with extreme political ideologies as well as violence.

PSG’s ultras have a history as complex and controversial as most, and the banners on show at the Parc des Princes belie an often ugly underside which has its roots in the city’s combustible tensions. PSG’s powerful fan culture dates back to the very earliest days of the club, which was created just 50 years ago following the merger of two others, Paris Football Club and Stade Saint-Germain. French football had historically been dominated by provincial sides, with clubs from the capital struggling to compete.

Racing Paris had been a founding member of Ligue 1 and one of the country’s biggest teams of the 1930s and 1940s before it found itself the focal point of a financial crisis affecting French clubs during the mid-1960s, leading to relegation into the lower leagues. Another side from the city, Red Star, had an illustrious history (it was founded in a Parisian café in 1897 by Jules Rimet) but an inability to establish itself in the top flight.

PSG was intended to be something quite different: a well-resourced, well-supported powerful club with a status fitting a capital city that would be able to challenge French rivals and take a place alongside the elite sides of Europe. A campaign was launched by powerful Parisian figures to create the new club, with Real Madrid the providing the inspiration. Indeed, the Spanish side’s president Santiago Bernabéu helped advise the campaign. Business figures were behind the project but so too – right from the beginning – were the fans. On the advice of Bernabéu, a crowdfunding campaign helped to get the new club on its feet and for its first three years PSG was fan-owned, with 14,820 socios (members).

For the new team’s colours, the red and blue of Paris’ coat of arms were chosen and supporters immediately took on the task of creating an intimidating atmosphere to help their side. After one of the first home games of their first season, a 2-1 win over Brest, the visiting players complained about the hostile atmosphere created by the Parisian fans.

In 1974 (after a split which saw another club created), PSG moved into the city’s newly redeveloped Parc des Princes stadium, in the 16th arrondissement. The club did not have the fanbase to fill the vast, cavernous ground, so offered cheap season tickets to young supporters who were put in the K section of the Borelli stand, named Kop K in reference to the Anfield terrace. As a consequence, Kop K went from around 500 fans in late 1976 to 3,000 by early 1977. After ticket prices were increased, the Kop K fans moved to the Boulogne stand and so the Kop of Boulogne (KoB) was born.

In 1985 the club’s first ultra-style group, the Boulogne Boys, was founded. Other KoB – or kobiste – groups followed, bringing in their wake an escalation of violence. The groups were inspired by English-style hooliganism and many reflected a vicious far-right ideology. By the end of the decade, attendances were falling, with the violence and racism of the KoB blamed.

In 1991, PSG’s new owners, the broadcasting giant Canal+, attempted to tackle this problem by encouraging non-violent spectators in the KoB to move to the Auteuil stand at the other end of the Parc, where new supporters groups were founded and sponsored by the club. The most prominent of these were the Virage Auteuil and the Supras Auteuil. In contrast to the English-inspired KoB at the other end of the ground, these groups modelled themselves on the Italian ultra culture, making use of banners, flares, chants and other expressions of ‘tifo’ – organised and choreographed support.

At the same time, the early 1990s saw the club’s fortunes on the pitch improve, as, under its new owners, it came to challenge the traditional giants of French football. As part of this a fierce rivalry with Olympique de Marseille developed. Fixtures between the two sides became known as Le Classique (an echo of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s El Clásico) and came to provide the country’s most prominent sporting clash. In fact, the emergence of this rivalry was not an entirely organic process. Canal+’s purchase of PSG at the start of the decade had been part of a strategy to revive interest in Ligue 1, which was increasingly dominated by Marseille. Girondins de Bordeaux were a fading force and Bernard Tapie, the owner of Marseille, needed another domestic rival to make the championship attractive again. As a result, he encouraged Canal+ to help him promote the enmity between the two clubs to a confrontational level. (The feud between the two was set in stone after a particularly brutal clash at the Parc des Princes in December 1992 which became known as La Boucherie. The southern side prevailed 1-0, after a game which featured 50 fouls). The hype between the two heightened tensions between supporters, and fan violence became a regular feature of Le Classique clashes.

Meanwhile, fresh tensions began to develop between PSG fan groups from either end of the ground. Initially, the club’s decision to move some fans to the Auteuil had helped reduce violence associated with PSG. The two stands had very different characters. The KoP remained overwhelmingly white, with far-right elements still present, while the Auteuil was more multicultural and left wing. Yet despite these differences, the two ends had a relatively peaceful coexistence during the 1990s and early 2000s, as they competed for visual and vocal dominance during games. Their exchange of the chant “Ici, c’est Paris!” (“This is Paris!”) became a trademark sound of the stadium.

Gradually, though, a toxic rivalry between the two ends grew. It exploded in 2003 when a banner was unfurled by an Auteuil ultra group, Tigris Mystic, proclaiming “The Future Belongs To Us”. It was interpreted at the other end of the pitch as a provocative challenge to the KoB, which was traditionally the most dominant of the two stands.

What followed was a power struggle between the newer ultras and the more established ones, played out in violent clashes between the groups outside the Parc des Princes. At its root were the racial tensions which had existed between the two ends for many years, and reflected wider racial tensions being felt across the city and indeed the country.

It marked the start of several troubled seasons, as the club became dogged by violence both between its fans, and involving opponents. In 2006, following a match between PSG and Israeli side Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC, anti-Semitic PSG ultras cornered a Hapoel fan in a bar. Fearing for the fan’s safety, a policeman intervened and a PSG supporter was fatally shot. In 2010, another kobiste fan was killed when he was caught up in a dispute with the Virage Auteuil ultras.

Various initiatives were tried to tackle the problems, involving both club officials and other fans and ultras, who were appalled by the bloodshed. There was a growing realisation that PSG’s earlier strategy of attempting to deal with the racists of the KoB by moving other fans to the far end and fostering supporters’ groups there had been a mistake. Rather than kick out the troublemakers, officials had cemented the problem by tacitly accepting that Boulogne was a white-only stand where far-right views and violence could foment, while effectively creating an area at the other end of the ground for a rival group to be established.

The response this time was very different. PSG’s violence problems had become a political issue and among those demanding action was Nicolas Sarkozy who, in 2006, had vowed that if he became French president he would rid the club of racists and hooligans. He happened to be at the final of the Coupe de la Ligue in 2008 when the Boulogne Boys unfurled a banner referring to fans of opponents Lens as incestuous, jobless, paedophiles. The banner marked a watershed and the interior minister ordered the group to disband.

Its demise did not mean an end to the clashes between those from the Auteuil and those from the Boulogne, but it certainly signalled an intent to bring the war to a close. In 2010, the French government dissolved another five PSG supporters’ groups while the club’s then president Robin Leproux banned all such groups from club matches. Officially known as Tous PSG (All PSG), fans called this hard line response Le Plan Leproux.

The groups did not go quietly. During the last game of the 2009-2010 season, against Montpellier, those from both ends of the group hurled hundreds of red flares onto the pitch, forcing play to be halted for several minutes. In the Auteuil, a banner was unfurled stating simply: “This Is The End.” It was certainly the end of a chapter.

The following year, PSG was bought by the state of Qatar, through its shareholding organisation Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), instantly becoming one of the richest clubs in the world. The new owners expanded the Plan Leproux. The measures had initially targeted only the 1,200 ultras in the Boulogne and Auteuil Stands but under QSI, 13,000 fans from these parts of the ground were banned from attending PSG matches. Perhaps more significantly, by the end of the Qataris first year in charge, ticket prices had been bumped by up to 70%. Attendance levels soared thanks to big-money signings and violence dropped. But critics claimed the club had also lost its stadium atmosphere, and accused officials of using the Plan Leproux as a convenient way to gentrify its fans.

Gradually, the ultra movement began to reform. In fact, it had never really gone away. Banned from watching the men’s team, many ultras had turned their attention to supporting PSG’s women and youth teams, and even, for big games, its handball side. In 2016, former Virage Auteuil fans formed the Collectif Ultras Paris (CUP), to try to reclaim their seats in the stadium for men’s matches. After discussions with the club, 150 ultras were permitted to take up an area of the Auteuil for a game against Bordeaux – their first for six years. They have since built an increasing presence in the stand, their return encouraged by many players who have criticised the lack of atmosphere since the ban was first introduced.

The CUP remains the only ultra group officially recognised by the club, but the movement has also started to re-establish itself at in the Boulogne stand. New groups have emerged there – apparently more multicultural than their predecessors and without their far-right, racist character. They have been lobbying the club to relaunch the Kop of Boulogne, thus far unsuccessfully, with officials understandably wary of provoking a new Boulogne-Auteuil war.

The accord established with the Qatari owners and the CUP has allowed the Auteuil stand to develop the spectacles now on display at home games, but it has brought with it its own controversy, putting the CUP at odds with the ultra culture in other parts of Europe. In recent decades, it has become a focal point for the movement against the commercialisation of sport and football in particular as well as lobbying for political change. The CUP agreed to focus its attention on what is happening on the pitch in return for access to the stadium. But it has been defanged in the process, its critics allege, and become more corporate than other ultras.

However, things have not been entirely harmonious since the CUP returned and a fragile truce exists between it, the club and the Parisian police. The CUP has clashed with officials already this season, announcing a boycott in October in response to what it claimed were heavy-handed security measures. The CUP demanded the departure of a security company from the Auteuil end and two PSG employees, including the club’s assistant security director, a former Kop of Boulogne member. Within a week, in a surprisingly swift turn of events, the club agreed to end its contract with the security firm but did not sack its own employees. For its part the CUP agreed to end its boycott and move on.

The incident is testament to the evolving relationship between the two sides, the club and the ultras, but is also a reminder that it is an uneasy one. PSG may not quite have reached the highest heights of European club competition but the club was last month named the most financially powerful in the world and is one of the mightiest in world football. Yet for all its potency, the club’s ultras remain an immense and independent force, one whose raw power can be seen to such spectacular effect across the width of the Auteuil end each home game.

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