Early afternoon in the cobbled Place du Général de Gaulle, the summer drizzle sending the bar staff scurrying out to collect chairs, and Les Lillois are counting the cost of life as a host city at the European Championship. Fans from Germany and Ukraine had clashed briefly in the square the previous day before their teams’ meeting at Stade Pierre Mauroy. Those scenes had been far removed from the running street battles of Marseille, but the Russians are here this week and those English not destined for nearby Lens will also be in town.
The sense is this should be a city flinging down its steel shutters before an invasion, the heightened tension justifying the front-page headline in the morning’s La Voix du Nord – a screamed “Euro: a festival, BUT...” – that lured readers inside to grimly familiar reports of hooliganism and riots, injuries and arrests. Yet there is as much pragmatism as apprehension. “There’s no chance the bars and cafes are going to close this week,” says Amna Balti, breaking away from duties at the Honey & Pie Café. “Look, our business was up by at least 20% on Sunday. We are looking forward to serving more English customers. We like the English.”
This may prove to have been the calm before the storm but Lille believes it is ready for what is to come. The city hosts Russia’s Group B fixture against Slovakia on Wednesday, 24 hours before England play Wales 19 miles down the road. As Greg Dyke reiterated in his letter to Uefa expressing concern over security arrangements, the Football Association, after consulting with the authorities, advised fans without tickets to congregate in Lille. The area is braced to welcome around 50,000 English and 20,000 Welsh this week, with the potential for trouble very clear, particularly given the tone was set in the south over a three-day period last week.
With that in mind representatives from the city’s Préfecture du Nord, town hall, police municipale and gendarmerie held a series of meetings on Monday to debrief the weekend’s events and prepare for the week ahead. Around 3,400 police officers and emergency service personnel had been in the city over the weekend, many charged with overseeing the “fan walk” conducted by a group of 3,000 German supporters from Rue de Cambrai in the town centre to the stadium. The day brought six arrests, including one – that of an Albanian man after a fight with a British national – for aggravated violence and disturbance of the peace. The authorities congratulated their “spotters” and border control for denying 25 known troublemakers entry into France near the Belgian border.
The expectation is that even more officers will be drafted in to patrol the streets this week. There have been questions asked over the delayed response from the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS), the riot police having concentrated their efforts around Lille-Flandres station. There were three CRS vans still parked up behind the station again on Monday, their officers on a watching brief as the influx of supporters began. Yet what violence did occur before the Germany game had been brief and relatively isolated between Place du Général de Gaulle and Place Rihour. Four people were admitted to Salengro hospital and one to Saint-Vincent. Those numbers are relatively small compared with the injuries sustained, by locals and visitors alike, in Bouches-du-Rhône. But, as numerous shopkeepers were eager to point out, Lille is not Marseille.
“That is a ‘special’ city,” said Guillaume Palka, owner of a bar called La Voûte. “There is a lot of violence usually in Marseille, whereas Lille is more of a student town. They are here to study and have fun. What happened down there in Marseille does make you a little more worried, but there will be more police here in the squares this week. The local government will make sure of that. And, if there is trouble, we will close.” Benoît Corompt, a barman at La Houblonnière, said: “We had tons of Germans in the main square on Sunday afternoon and, yes, there was a bit of fighting, but they sorted it out themselves. The problems in Marseille were down to Marseille. They are always fighting down there. People come in from the outskirts to watch matches, but also to fight. The authorities should have been more careful and had more police. We closed before the match yesterday because a chair was thrown through the window and the owner was worried, but I would have stayed open. Sure, we’re a little bit worried about the next few days but not that much. This is not Marseille.”
Both pointed to the fact Lille has welcomed English fans regularly over the years, with Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton having visited in European competition, for all that fans from the latter were attacked by around 50 locals in a bar before a Europa League tie in October 2014. There were incidents, too, in the main square with tear gas fired by police. Yet, if there are simmering concerns, there is also a festival to enjoy and money to be made. The staff at Le Coq Hardi, in the corner of the main square, spent the morning desperately replenishing stock having flogged 750 litres of beer at 12 Euros each on Sunday while English, German, Swiss, Ukrainian and Albanian supporters mixed merrily. According to one of their staff, profits will counter-balance fears of “a ‘sacking’ like we saw in Marseille”.
The Préfecture has already warned establishments they will be fined if they serve alcohol to people already the worse for wear with officers from the Police Municipale, clipboards in hand, visiting bars across the town to remind all of their responsibilities. Some fear the footage from the weekend could yet prompt a ban of the sale of alcohol before the midweek games. “You never know what might happen,” said the waiter at Le Métropole on Place Rihour. “They could decide tomorrow that we should shut. But I doubt it.”
Additional police officers from the United Kingdom will arrive in the city in the days ahead, working in conjunction with their counterparts from France, yet there is already an English contingent making themselves at home in Lille. The St George flags were flying in the city on Monday, sporting club allegiances from Crystal Palace (“Surrey Eagles”) to Everton (“Scouse Power”). “We’ve been here all weekend and it’s been brilliant,” said Paul Halter from Liverpool. “I’ve not seen an argument, never mind a fight.” Kevin Parker, an England fan who had attended Germany’s win over Ukraine: “We haven’t seen any trouble at all. We went to the fanzone to watch the England game and were talking to the German fans and they wanted us to win. We were with the Germany fans again for the match and everything was fine. There were some Ukraine fans dotted about and there were no problems. It is a bit of a concern that Russia are playing here: we’ve got tickets for the Slovakia game but we won’t be wearing our England tops.” That fanzone welcomed 70,000 visitors on Saturday, and 20,000 on Sunday, and has been declared a huge success. The hope is that sense of celebration is maintained over the days ahead.