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Are French police unprepared for Euro rioting, or just burnt out?

LEON NEAL / AFP | An England fan clashes with police personnel in the city of Marseille, southern France, on June 11, 2016, ahead of the Euro 2016 football match between England and Russia

Critics say French police were ill-prepared for rioting that took place during the first weekend of the Euro 2016 football tournament. But after six months of protests, flooding and security alerts, French police might just be overworked.

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A press release from France’s largest police union, SGP, on Monday praised the “professionalism and sang-froid” of French security forces in the face of football rioting over the weekend in Marseille.

“Although the Marseille police have been on their toes for months, their professionalism and sang-froid avoided what could have been much worse consequences,” the statement on the SGP website read.

The congratulatory statement seemed to gloss over a chaotic situation on the ground. Skirmishes and fights broke out between Russian, English and French fans both in the Marseille stadium and on the streets on Friday and Saturday. Punches, bottles, and chairs were thrown, resulting in 35 injuries and one death. Videos of the riot shows football fans fleeing as police try to control the mélée with flares, tear gas, batons and dogs.

“We were completely overwhelmed by these hooligans and people from Russia,” the mayor of Marseille, Jean-Claude Gaudin, told AFP Monday.

“The French strategy in dealing with crowds is simply out-dated and hasn’t responded to developments in crowd science and social psychology,” Geoff Pearson, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester and a security expert, told FRANCE 24.

The unexpected Euro rioting is just the latest in six months of extraordinary challenges for French security forces. France has added 3,000 army troops to the 10,000 already deployed in Paris since last year’s terrorist attacks, bringing the total number of police, security guards and soldiers expected to be used across the country up to 100,000. But after dealing with protests, strikes, flooding, a migrant crisis and an ongoing terror threat, the Euro might be too much for French police to handle.

Six trying months

“The French security, police and local population have had a very difficult run up to the tournament -- no one can question this,” Elaine Brown, a security expert at Canterbury Christ Church University, told FRANCE 24.

France’s security situation has been extremely tense since terror attacks in January and November 2015 killed a total of 147 people in the French capital. French security stayed in the international spotlight in December 2015 when hundreds of world leaders came to Paris for the COP21 environmental accords, prompting the government to temporarily ban large public gatherings.

Then a controversial labour bill, announced by President François Hollande in early 2016, kicked off six months of near-continuous protests. Clashes between police and protesters were frequent, and two dozen police were injured during one day of protests in April.

Tensions reached a high point in May when police held their own protest against anti-police violence. A video turned one officer-- later dubbed “Kung Fu cop”-- into an internet sensation, as it showed him calmly defending himself from attacking protesters while his car is set on fire next to him.

“The security and police could be suffering from what in theory is considered 'warning fatigue' by this point,” said Brown, meaning security forces no longer feel they can actively prevent a threat beforehand. According to Brown, this can lead to heavy-handed tactics in response to minor incidents.

Not about the numbers

After this weekend’s riots, European football's governing body, UEFA, said it would employ even more security personnel for upcoming matches.

But security expert Pearson says it’s not a question of numbers.

“There were more than enough police in Marseille -- it’s just they were badly deployed,” Pearson said.

The expert said that police in the UK, Germany, and Sweden have had better results by interacting with fans before a match and identifying potential trouble-makers.

“Officers need to enter into dialogue with supporters and the wearing of riot gear and use of riot control tactics should only be a last resort, rather than a default approach to minor instances,” Pearson said.

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