The reasons behind the rise of homophobic incidents at French football matches
A stand-off between ultras and authorities has seen games brought to a halt
The Ligue 1 match between Nice and Marseille was halted for several minutes after fans displayed a homophobic banner. Photograph: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
At the offices of France’s Ligue de Football Professionel (LFP) on Rue Léo Delibes, the hope had been that Thursday would deliver a first step towards rapprochement.
Representatives from anti-homophobia groups were due to meet delegates from the national association of supporters at the league’s headquarters in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. So confirmation the talks had been postponed at the request of the fans’ groups prompted grumbling frustration.
The first few weeks of the domestic campaign have been plagued by what, at first glance, would appear to be a troubling escalation in homophobic incidents in stadiums.
A little under a month into the season there have been at least 20 reports of homophobic chanting or slogans documented at games in the top two divisions and League Cup. The first half of the Ligue 1 match between Nice and Marseille last week was halted for 10 minutes after home supporters at the Allianz Riviera unfurled two banners bearing homophobic messages, with a third displayed later in the match. Fans also aimed anti-gay chants at the LFP.
The incidents drew condemnation as “unacceptable” from the respective managers, Patrick Vieira and André Villas-Boas, as well as from the France coach, Didier Deschamps. There had been similar scenes at Nîmes the previous weekend, and there would be again two days after events on the Côte d’Azur, with Metz’s game against Paris Saint-Germain halted for a few minutes midway through the opening period. “PSG, LFP, let me sing to you, to tell you to go fuck yourselves!” read one of the banners at Stade Saint-Symphorien. “I won’t be on TV, because my words are not very gay.”
Outside the elite, a Ligue 2 meeting between Nancy and Le Mans had previously been subjected to a temporary suspension after some in the home end engaged in homophobic chants. The referee, Mehdi Mokhtari, was praised by France’s secretary of state for equality, Marlène Schiappa, for calling the players off, with the Piantoni stand at Nancy’s Stade Marcel Picot shut for a fixture as punishment.
The proactive response to the chants by referees, and resultant sanctions by the game’s governing body, are in accordance with measures introduced by the LFP over the summer aimed at eradicating homophobia.
Chants had previously been tolerated. Words such as enculé, with homophobic connotations, have been flung as insults from the terraces with no repercussions despite calls from LGBT groups for a clampdown. But, after the sports minister, Roxana Maracineanu, exclaimed shock at the abuse she witnessed being exchanged between Marseille and PSG supporters at their highly-charged fixture in March, the authorities finally mobilised.
Maracineanu, a silver medallist in the 200m backstroke at the 2000 Olympics, claimed she would be reluctant to take her children to games, and met Noël Le Graët, president of the French Football Federation, after another incident of homophobic chanting in the derby between Lens and Valenciennes in April.
An action plan, paving the way for judicial sanctions against abusive fans, was announced in May. In co-operation with the International League against Racism and anti-Semitism, and a group fighting violence and discrimination against LGBT people, the LFP would distribute forms at games allowing spectators to report anonymously any sexist, homophobic or racist incidents.
Those found guilty of discrimination in public places, such as stadiums, face fines up to €22,500 and even prison sentences. Officials were also given the power to abandon or suspend games – a move encouraged by Emmanuel Macron, France’s president and in compliance with Fifa’s directive adopted across all member federations in July – with clubs threatened with fines and partial stadium closures. Point deductions have also been mooted.
The LFP president, Nathalie Boy de la Tour, also announced awareness-raising workshops for clubs, had thousands of leaflets distributed to coaches and players at academies, some apparently unaware of the true meaning of the insults that have become the norm, and spoke of instigating proper dialogue between the authorities and fan groups.
Yet, while the good intentions behind the initiatives have rightly drawn praise, a lack of proper communication with the rank and file support has undermined progress. The issue has become political.
This requires context: in the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, away supporters have endured restrictions of movement in France with the authorities citing security concerns. Ultras groups have been similarly infuriated by the recent crackdown on the use of flares and smoke bombs on the terraces. Now comes action against their chants.
Even Boy de la Tour admitted in March that the offensive songs at games were part of “fan folklore”. “The majority of supporters [chanting] don’t have the feeling they are hurting others,” she added, comments she later tried to clarify.
Regardless, chants ultras had long considered their own are now prompting suspensions of matches and partial ground closures. Even acknowledging the nuances of some of the words used – anti-discrimination associations in France are working with the LFP to establish a list of homophobic terms to be banned in grounds – the issues have become wider.
Although plenty of match-going fans will be relieved to hear the offensive chants choked, some supporter groups, who claim to have been unaware of the new measures and the possible sanctions despite Boy de la Tour’s pledge to instigate proper dialogue, perceive this as part of a larger-scale attack on their culture and a desire from the authorities to remove them.
It has been claimed the sudden increase in provocative anti-LFP songs and slogans at games is reflective of a desire to challenge not the fight against homophobia but the authorities’ wider attitude towards the fanbase.
That was the argument put forward in Nice. At Lyon – “Schiappa, will you talk about homophobia in Qatar 2022?” and “Fifa, Roxana, Schiappa: is the fight against homophobia only serious when petrodollars are not involved?” – and Nantes, Toulouse and Nîmes banners have been unfurled bearing messages hostile to the government and LFP, citing hypocrisy. The standoff between ultras and the governing bodies is more entrenched than ever.
“But we do not want to work against fan organisations,” said Boy de la Tour. “We want to work with them. We at the LFP are self-critical and we may not have consulted enough with fans’ groups before [implementing the new policy]. But the dialogue is open. I strongly believe in consultation, education and raising awareness.”
That may reflect an acceptance that the meeting scheduled for Thursday should have taken place before the season. The fan groups contacted the league this week seeking a postponement until after their annual general meeting this weekend, with the hope now that discussions will take place towards the middle of the month.
Until those talks appease all sides, France’s fight against homophobia in domestic football is unlikely to be won. An issue behind which it should be easy to unite is being played out as a political game, with the schism between ultras and authorities wider than ever. – Guardian