The security threats looming over this summer’s Olympics in Paris

The French capital is gearing up to prevent terrorist attacks during the Olympic Games with a massive police deployment and exhaustive checks. President Macron also warns of Russian interference

Soldiers on patrol at the Trocadero in Paris on March 25.Benoit Tessier (REUTERS)
Marc Bassets

Tony Estanguet, president of the Paris Olympic Games organizing committee, can sleep easy. At a lunch with journalists in an Italian restaurant on the northern outskirts of Paris a few days ago, he was asked what worried him a few months before the opening ceremony on July 26. He simply responded: “For me, personally, not much.”

Estanguet, who won Olympic gold in Sydney, Athens, and London in his career as a canoeist, added: “There is nothing to indicate that we are not going to do it.”

The Olympic village on the banks of the Seine is finished. The facilities and stadiums are ready. Everything is in place for the French capital to host the Games again — the last time was 1924 — and become the center of the world this summer.

But with just over 100 days before the opening ceremony, there is something that still worries the authorities and specialists: security. These Olympic Games will be held in a tense international context, with wars in the Middle East and Ukraine.

One threat is Russia. Paris is preparing for Russian cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. “It will be a risk,” commented the French president, Emmanuel Macron, at the Aquatic Center’s official opening this Thursday. “That’s why we have to stand firm.”

Another threat hanging over the event is terrorism. Frédéric Péchenard, former director general of the national police, and today an opposition councilor in Paris explains: “I feel uneasy. Organizing something like the Olympic Games is enormous and there are undoubtedly objective risks.”

Since 2015, France has suffered several attacks and has a multitude of radical Islamists on its territory who could take action. The attack on the concert venue near Moscow on March 22, in which 144 people died, has increased alarm over the possibility that Islamic State or a similar organization may attempt something similar in Western Europe.

The Olympic Games are a universal spectacle with audiences that can exceed one billion viewers. The event is a global stage for anyone to air their grievances, including with acts of violence. There is precedent: the massacre of Israeli athletes by a Palestinian group in Munich in 1972 ushered in an era of international terrorism.

Opening ceremony

The moment of greatest risk is the opening ceremony, which for the first time will take place outside a stadium and in an urban environment. Athletes will parade in boats along the Seine for almost four miles with Notre-Dame, the Louvre museum, and the Eiffel tower as a backdrop.

“The risk has been anticipated and measured, and the means are enormous,” says Péchenard. “But the very concept of the opening ceremony, which is sure to be magnificent in aesthetic and artistic terms, causes those in charge of security to have cold sweats.”

“We will be prepared,” Macron promised at the Aquatic Center. “If the threat evolves,” he said, “we have withdrawal scenarios.” The president thus implied that there is a plan B in case something fails at the last minute, or if new risks arise.

Paris will adapt to the current situation based on threats and the ability to guarantee the safety of spectators and athletes. Actually, it already has.

Initially, 600,000 people were expected to be present on the banks of the Seine to follow the ceremony. Now there are 300,000. There was talk of circulating 160 boats for the athletes; Now there are 94, as Marc Guillaume, prefect of the Paris region, explained in a hearing in early March before the French Senate.

In the same session, the director general of the internal security services, Céline Berthon, confirmed that the terrorist threat has been growing “for just over a year.” She specified that these are “quite young profiles, who are often very active on the internet. They are consumers of extremely violent content, and are able to take action quickly with rudimentary means.”

The Ministry of the Interior is checking the identity and background of people involved in the Games, from the one million volunteers, including the Olympic flame bearers, to the 20,000 private security officers. Among the volunteers, 180,000 checks have already been carried out and 800 people have been rejected, including 15 registered as a potential threat. Among private agents, a thousand have been rejected, among whom 102 had a police record.

“They are not just radical Islamists who want to take action,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told the LCI network. “They could also be radical environmental protesters, people who would like to put out the flame and be able to highlight their cause to the whole world.”

Mobilizing security forces has few precedents. There will be 45,000 police and gendarmes deployed for the opening ceremony. All attendees in the public will be subject to security checks.

“I rather feel confident about the country's security forces,” says Guillaume Farde, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies and a specialist in security issues. “What I see is that they are capable and that in the last 15 years they have faced difficult challenges.”

Farde cites the demonstration on January 11, 2015, after the attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the Euro Cup soccer tournament, a year later. There were no incidents during either event.

“Currently in France there are defeatist voices that say: ‘We have to stop. It [the ceremony] will fail. We are heading towards catastrophe,” says the expert. “There is a method to guarantee zero risk, and that is to do nothing. The question is how much risk is taken on in order to be successful, because there is no success without taking risks. “What you have to do is constantly evaluate them, which is currently the case, and adjust the plan based on the evolution of the threat, which is also the case.”

The criminologist Alain Bauer, who two years ago warned that the opening ceremony at that time was “criminal madness,” says: “Much has changed since that statement, but the risk remains very high for the public, the athletes, and the image of the Olympic Games. There are now alternative plans and little by little realism is prevailing in the Ministry of the Interior and the police administration.”

Estanguet, the president of the organizing committee, points out that security has been at the core of the Olympic project from the beginning, and that Paris and France have experience. Remember that the candidacy was announced after the attacks of January 2015: “There was then a political response that consisted of saying: ‘France will continue to defend its image and its way of life; “We will not bow down.”

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