French tensions loom over preparations for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games

‘We are ready,’ says the city’s mayor Anne Hidalgo, a year ahead of an event that should portray a united France

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, at the Olympic torch parade on July 25, 2023, in the French capital.
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, at the Olympic torch parade on July 25, 2023, in the French capital.PASCAL ROSSIGNOL (REUTERS)
Marc Bassets

A truce has been called. France is keeping its fingers crossed that, when the Olympic Games open in a year’s time, calm will reign. The riots earlier this summer in the banlieue — the multicultural and impoverished city suburbs populated by generations of immigrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa — and a winter of protests against pension reform have been a wake-up call.

The fear is that crises such as those that have caused upheaval in the country in recent months — or those involving the Yellow Vest protest movement five years ago — will kick off during the 2024 Olympics and ruin an event that should project an image of a powerful and united France at a time of social division and fear of economic decline.

“We are ready,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist mayor of Paris, in mid-June. Her guests, including several correspondents and an EL PAÍS journalist, had just sat down at the Hôtel de Ville, the headquarters of Paris City Hall. With just over a year to go before the inauguration on July 26, 2024, Hidalgo was confident. She made that clear from the get-go.

“I remember Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, which hosted the 2016 Games, telling me that the year with all the dangers was the year before the Games,” she explained. “The lesson I took from that was that you had to be ready a year before.” And she goes on to fire off a battery of data on infrastructures, security, transportation and the opening ceremony, which is not being staged in a stadium, but on the Seine. Everything is ready, or almost.

But a few days after this conversation, a policeman shot a teenager on the outskirts of Paris. The teenager died. Violence broke out in the banlieues. And now a shadow hangs over the Olympic Games. What if it goes wrong?

The riots began on June 27, and were intense if brief. With the deployment of 45,000 police and gendarmes, calm was restored in less than a week. The unrest already seems like a distant memory.

“There are two versions of France,” reflected essayist Dominique Moïsi, author of The Geopolitics of Emotion. “One has been in evidence in recent days celebrating the 14th of July, happy with its place in the world. The other, has people gripped by rage and anger.” But he added: “My feeling is that France is fully prepared to host the Games: the French will be passionate and proud to have them in Paris.” A poll by the Harris Institute indicates that 72% of French people support Paris hosting the Games. Another, from the Odoxa Institute, puts support at 59%.

Unlike with Barcelona in 1992, these are not Olympic Games that will transform a city. There will be no monuments or symbols to change its profile, such as the Arc de La Défense. But they will accelerate changes that have been underway for years to turn Paris into an ecological capital. And they should serve to improve neighborhoods, such as those where the riots have taken place.

Near the almost-ready Olympic City, in the Saint-Denis neighborhood, one can see the former industrial sites in the north of Paris now under construction. “We’re tidying up these areas a bit,” said a guide to visitors from a construction company. “Even if it’s called Saint-Denis, this is Paris!”

But what if, before or during the event, images of burning vehicles, of protesters storming police stations and town halls, of schools and libraries vandalized and shopping centers looted were to be beamed around the world? According to the national newspaper, Le Monde: “We should not take the interlude of national unity during the Games for granted.”

Trade and Tourism Minister, Olivia Grégoire, told EL PAÍS in the days that followed, “I have no concerns.” She pointed out that the 2011 riots in London did not prevent the success of the Games in London the following year. Mayor Hidalgo and her advisors sent a similar message. “I hope that the atmosphere will be calmer in a year’s time, but we are preparing for any eventuality,” said Pierre Rabadan, deputy mayor in charge of the Olympics. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Grégoire, in charge of urban planning, said: “There is a tradition of Olympic truces and this interlude is essential.”

When she became mayor in 2014, Hidalgo dragged her feet on another bid for the Games after the failure of Paris’ 2012 bid, which went to London. The current bid began to take shape in 2015, the year of the Islamist attacks against the weekly Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine which took place in January and, in November, on the Bataclan theater, the sidewalk cafés of eastern Paris and the sports stadium, the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, which hosted the 2022 Champions League final and will stage the Olympics next summer.

“What frightened me at the time was hearing young people, even children, explaining that the heroes were the terrorists and that Charlie Hebdo was guilty of an excess of freedom of expression,” said Hidalgo. “I heard it! And I said to myself: ‘This is not great at all. We must find something to give perspective, a boost to the young people, to the country, and the Games can be that uniting thing.’ I also thought: ‘There are people, there are children, who are in France, but they don’t know where they live.’ Maybe the Games can allow everyone to understand where we live.”

Could the Games be this uniting event? “Yes. My philosophy is not to deny the difficulties. The unrest in the country is something I don’t ignore,” replied Hidalgo. “I am not naive.”

According to Hidalgo, the Games “must be a moment in which the claims of the French can be expressed and the event celebrated. There are values and a philosophy,” she adds. “It’s not just a time for festivities and it’s not just a money-making machine. And this changes the nature of the Games: for Paris it could not be otherwise.”

Born into a Spanish family of emigrants subject to Francoist reprisals, Hidalgo added: “The fact I am mayor of Paris, and have dual nationality, means something at a time when all the populists award themselves the right to say who should be here and who should not. We are a totally mixed people, proud of our history.”

If all goes to plan, Paris 2024 could bring a complicated 10 years to a close. And it could also resurrect the political fortunes of Hidalgo, a severely defeated candidate in the 2022 presidential election, and of French President Emmanuel Macron, who will be able to face the end of his mandate — he can’t run again — with a soft power success in the shape of the Olympics.

“If you look at history, Japan’s return to the world stage came after the Tokyo Games in 1964, and the Beijing Games were very important for China in 2008,” said Moïsi. “The Olympic Games have a tendency to mark a new beginning, or to reinforce what already exists. Or, in the case of France, to erase an image that has been marred.”

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