By Mitch Phillips
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) – Images of Robocop-style riot police amid clouds of tear gas to a backdrop of sirens and defiant chanting suggested Lille was in meltdown on Wednesday, yet some of those involved have suggested it was more of a cross-cultural misunderstanding.
After three days of disorder in Marseille, when there were pockets of real violence involving England fans, much of it where they were the victims of Russian assaults, authorities were on high alert when both sets of supporters headed north for their next matches.
Throughout the day and night many fans were detained, though few arrested, and 16 people were hospitalized but there were almost no clashes between fans.
Instead there was a stand-off that developed into something of a rolling cat-and-mouse chase between police and singing, drinking England fans.
The approach of the French police was to keep a watch and when any of the fans seemed to be challenging their authority by heading in a direction they were not welcome, they were moved along with occasional use of tear gas.
To many around the world, tear gas and water canon, which were also used to disperse fans in Marseille, give an impression of massive civil unrest. There are no water canon in use in the mainland of the United Kingdom for example.
For the French CRS riot police, however, tear gas is used before, and often instead of, any actual contact.
This approach is usually described by the coughing, debilitated victims as “heavy handed” in that it targets innocent bystanders but it is undoubtedly effective in dispersing crowds.
During Wednesday’s exchanges, one British police officer on duty told Reuters: “This wouldn’t happen at home. The French have a different way of doing this,” though French authorities and UEFA have stated their satisfaction with the approach.
British police have been working alongside their French counterparts, some of them acting as “cultural interpreters” — which is an attempt to convince the local police that loud, often aggressive chanting, is not necessarily the precursor to violence.
On Wednesday, much of the tension was defused by British police wearing light-blue vests bearing English and Welsh flags, who helped move fans away from the “frontline.”
“The cooperation with the French has been excellent and our officers have played a key role,” said Assistant Chief Constable Mark Roberts of the UK Football Policing Unit.
“It has prevented an escalation of the situation and the intelligence of our officers has proved critical to a successful night.”
One fan commented on a Reuters Facebook live posting: “It’s not hooliganism at all, it’s just a bunch of guys having a good time, having a good drink, that’s it. Full stop. Done. What’s happening is the police are trying to enclose people.
“I understand it might look a little bit boisterous, but at the end of the day, that’s what we do best.”
By the early hours of the morning when the bars were closing and both sides no doubt weary of the relentless movement, the police became more forceful and brought in dogs, which quickly cleared the scene.
As fans gathered again on Thursday, many heading to nearby Lens for England’s match against Wales, the head of the English Football Association Martin Glenn appealed for peace.
“I think the message to all English fans, Welsh fans too, is that the French are trying to deal with a real security threat,” he told BBC Radio.
France has suffered several attacks by Islamist militants in the past two years, including a shooting rampage in Paris in November that killed 130 people. Two French police officials were killed on Monday by a man claiming allegiance to Islamic State.
“Behave responsibly, come and enjoy the game but just have a think about the wider position. Show some consideration and respect.”
(Additonal reporting by Phil O’Connor and Alastair Macdonald in Lille; Editing by Angus MacSwan)