France’s penchant for protests offers challenge ahead of Paris Olympics


Widespread protests in France are not uncommon. In fact, they are an ingrained part of the country’s history dating back to the French Revolution. But the last few months have been especially rattling and have cast a shadow over the planning and execution of next summer’s Olympic Games in Paris.

First the country was paralyzed in January by pension protests directed at French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to raise the legal retirement age by two years to 64.

The constant refrain of demonstrators was “No withdrawal, no Olympics.”

Then this month, thousands of people took to the streets after the police shot and killed 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, a French citizen of Moroccan and Algerian descent, as he attempted to flee a traffic stop in a Paris suburb.

In the wake of the killing, mass riots broke out in cities across the country, driven by a long-standing tension between French police and many of the country’s racialized population. Thousands of cars and buildings were destroyed. Calm has only been restored in recent days and came only with the deployment of thousands of police.

Spectators hold a banner that reads ‘Justice for Nahel’ along the race route at the start of the first stage of the 110th edition of the Tour de France cycling race on July 1. Nahel was the teen killed by police during a traffic stop in a Paris suburb on June 27. (AFP via Getty Images)

‘Politics through different means’

“Protests are more common in France than in many other democracies. So it seems more common in France that important political issues are resolved after big protests rather than in parliaments,” says Johannes Lindval, a political science professor at the University of Gothenburg.

“The regular ways of expressing political opinions and being represented in politics are sort of closed off in France more than in other comparable countries in this region. Therefore people feel that they have to kind of participate in politics through a different means.”

Both of these protests have already affected France’s Olympic efforts.

During the pension riots, a French labour union cut power to numerous Olympic sites, including the main Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Village. Protesters even briefly occupied the Olympic organizing committee offices.

The widespread protests seen over the past few weeks left the Olympic Aquatic Training Centre, which was under construction, badly burned.

Organizers and Olympics officials are downplaying any impact these events could have on the Games.

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“We have learnt with regret about the recent incidents in France,” an IOC spokesperson told Reuters. “We have full confidence in the organizing committee and the French authorities to deliver successful Olympic and Paralympic Games and in the hospitality of the French people to welcome the world to these Games.”

“We’re still a year away from the Games,” said Emmanuel Gregoire, First Deputy Mayor of Paris. “We shouldn’t get our calendars mixed up.”

But some experts say officials should pay close attention to what is happening.

“There is an opportunity for social movements that aren’t directly related to the Olympics themselves,” says Simon Black, a labour studies professor at Brock University. “[Groups] who have grievances with the French government and could use the Olympics in Paris as a platform with the eyes of the world on Paris to forward or advance their cause.”

Black says the racial and economic divisions in French society could easily be further inflamed by the Olympics, which he says are increasingly a microcosm of broader society.

“I think there’s a degree to which people see the Olympic Games, which were originally in the spirit of being anti-commercial and in the spirit of amateurism, of brotherhood or sisterhood,” Black says. “And now really reflecting the broader economy where you have the IOC, which many people see as a kind of antidemocratic rich elite who operate with little accountability.”

Angela Schneider, director of Western University’s International Centre for Olympic Studies, agrees the French population’s propensity for demonstrations brings special considerations.

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“I do think there is a special strength to the French people and their kind of demonstrations. So it is something that merits consideration and planning,” Schneider says. “I do think having the big stage does motivate some people who don’t feel they get the attention that they would have gotten without that, so I think [officials] will have to contend with that. These things can blow up and balloon out quite unexpectedly at times.” 

At the same time, Schneider says there are a number of factors that could insulate the Paris Games from wider unrest in the country.

There appears to be widespread support for the Olympics in France beyond the recent protests. Four million applicants signed up for the initial ticket draw and more than 200,000 candidates applied to fill the 45,000 volunteer positions needed for the Games.

Then there is France’s deep connection to the Game, dating back to the founder of the modern Olympics, Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin.

“The history of the Games themselves and the role of France and de Coubertin, the French are extremely proud of that,” Schneider says. “So that weighs heavily. It’s worth thinking about when we think about the Olympics in the context of social demonstrations.”

Riots ahead of London 2012 Olympics

The Paris Olympics won’t be the first or last to take place in the context of wider domestic or international conflict, strife or protest.

In London in 2011, a year before it hosted the Games, the city dealt with a similar set of circumstances that played out this summer in Paris.  Riots broke out after British police shot Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop. The resulting violence left five people dead and millions of dollars in damage.

British Olympic Association chairman Sir Hugh Robertson, who was Britain’s Minister of Sport and Olympics, offered this advice to French officials.

“Stay calm and keep focused. The organizers have my sympathy and I am sure that they will sort this out,” Robertson told AFP. “We are still over a year out from the opening ceremony, which is a very long time in the course of organizing something as big as the Olympic Games.”

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