May 29, 1998


French pledge tight World Cup security, but danger lingers

By Ian Phillips

PARIS - The World Cup's huge global television audience offers a prime stage for terrorists. And then there's the prospect of hooligans running riot.

Still, France thinks it can provide enough of a deterrent to make the June 10-July 12 soccer extravaganza less inviting.

After two months of surveillance, European police this week launched a massive crackdown on suspects linked to Algeria's six-year Islamic insurgency, rounding up 90 people in five countries.

French authorities said there was evidence they were planning an attack at the World Cup, which will be watched over a month by a cumulative worldwide audience of an estimated 37 billion.

France is stepping up anti-terrorism measures implemented in 1995 after a spate of bombings, mostly in Paris, in which eight people were killed and 160 injured.

Under the so-called ``Operation Vigipirate,'' trash cans were either removed or sealed up and steel barricades were set up outside schools.

``It was a matter of urgency,'' French government official Daniel Vaillant said. ``Now we can approach the World Cup more serenely.''

Well, maybe.

Although many countries, notably Britain, have gained the upperhand against soccer hooligans at home in recent years, traveling fans are still very much a threat.

British Home Secretary Jack Straw says British hooliganism might rear its head again, and has voiced concern over security at giant television screens which will show matches live to ticketless fans in many places across France.

``The risk of violence is real,'' Straw said in an interview with French daily Le Monde. He said British fans often ``believe local politicians are less experienced and don't know them.''

For that reason, French police have been working closely with foreign police to identify known troublemakers. Police, including many plainclothes officers, from participating nations will travel with their fans to France.

The message from French authorities is clear: Cause trouble and you could be jailed, fined, or deported, probably within 24 hours.

When it comes to talking tough and setting stern penalties, French police and justice officials seem to have got it right. Magistrates will attend matches, watching from police command posts, to ensure offenders are dealt with swiftly.

``We'll act in real time, immediately,'' said Justice Minister Elisabesth Guigou following a recent briefing with French magistrates. ``We want to ensure the World Cup is a party.''

But it seems the French, unaccustomed to large contingents of traveling fans in their domestic league, might be underestimating the threat of violence outside stadiums, and the need for preventive measures.

Foreign fans have had little access to tickets, but hundreds of thousands will be making the short journey across Europe to soak up the atmosphere in the streets, bars and venues of Paris and other French cities.

Many national soccer federations fear the giant television screens could be magnets for violence.

Rene Georges-Querry, chief of police for the tournament, said there will be no restrictions on alcohol sales at and around the screen venues. Police presence there may also be surprisingly low.

``I personally don't see why there should be more trouble at the big screens than at a concert,'' he told The Associated Press, referring to events such as The Three Tenors recital to be held by the Eiffel Tower.

``If there is trouble at the screens, we will bring police in immediately. But maybe only a few hundred fans will go and watch. Many will prefer to stay home and watch the game with a glass of whiskey.''

Security is expected to be extremely tight at the new Stade de France outside Paris, where every movement will be viewed via camera. Images, stored in a computer, may be used in court as evidence.

Hooligans risk being jailed for up to three years or fined between 50,000 francs (dlrs 8,300) and 100,000 francs (dlrs 16,600). Others could be deported and banned from returning to France for up to two years, or from attending matches there for five.

Offenses include inciting hatred, violence or racism; throwing dangerous objects; disturbing the progress of matches; or even bringing fireworks into stadiums.