Paris 2024 Olympics on Track to a Security Nightmare

Paris, Jan. 23, 2023—By Socrates George Kazolias

The Paris 2024 Olympic Games are on track (and field) to start in a little over 18 months and they promise to be a ‘Games of Firsts and Superlatives.’ The first ‘first’ was at the closing ceremony in Japan in August 2021, with a limited number of spectators and a year later than originally scheduled, due to Covid.

Firsts of Firsts

It was the first time the presentation of the next Olympic venue was broadcast live from the next host city, and not in the stadium of the closing ceremony.

These games come exactly 100 years after Paris hosted its last Olympics in 1924.

Paris 2024 will be the first time the Olympic marathon is open to the public, passing through iconic sites from the Hotel de Ville, to the Invalides and the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Chateau de Versailles. It will also be the first time an Olympic venue is on the other side of the world from the host city: 15,706 kilometers to be exact. The surfing competition will be in Tahiti.

Sailing will be held in the southern port city of Marseille and basketball in Lille in the north. Many of the venues will be held at museums and national monuments such as fencing at the Grand Palais, archery at Les Invalides, volleyball in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower at the Champs de Mars, or the Chateau de Versailles which will host the Equestrian competitions.

But the biggest ‘first’ is the opening ceremony to be held, for the first time, outside the Olympic stadium.  More than 200 boats will carry the 10,500 athletes, along with artists, musicians, and performers, six kilometers down the Seine from the Pont d’Austerlitz to the Eiffel Tower.  The plan is to allow 600,000 people to watch the ceremony from both banks of the River.

That is ten times more than in a stadium and they will be able to watch for free,” Tony Estanguet, the president of the Paris 2024 Organizing Committee, told the Anglo-American Press Association last year. “We want to open the games to everyone. We want to surprize the world.”

Up to three billion people around the world will be watching the opening ceremony which is a great marketing opportunity for Paris but a security nightmare for police. France continues to be under a high-level terrorist threat alert.

And a Security Nightmare

The French Professor of Criminology, Alain Bauer, called the opening ceremony “a criminal folly.” In an online interview with me last year, Bauer said that “beyond kamikaze drones, the increased risks of opening on the Seine are underestimated and you would be hard put to find one public or private expert to defend the government’s choice.”

The Paris Prefecture is also ringing alarm bells. Faced with such high-profile hostility to the plans, French President Emmanuel Macron stepped forward to give his backing to the open-air ceremony and promised “a small organizational miracle.” He committed France’s armed forces to reinforce the police.

If the fiasco of the Champions League football final, on May 28, 2021, is anything to go by, they have good reason to be worried. At that event local youths stormed the gates and attacked visiting fans from Spain and Britain. The French Interior Minister, Gérard Darmanin, at first tried to blame English fans without tickets for the trouble but the truth immediately came to light; poor police preparation and France’s unruly Banlieue youth spoiled the party. (1.)

The question people are asking is if they can’t handle a football game, how can they assure the safety of thirteen million visitors, the 200,000 people accredited to cover or manage the games, and the 10,500 athletes?

To prevent a recurrence of last year’s football troubles and the nightmare of the London 2012 Olympics where the Army had to be called in because there wasn’t enough private security, France is mobilizing 30,000 Police and Gendarmes along with 10,000 soldiers to assure public safety. The venues themselves will be protected by private security agencies with up to 35,000 guards.

Although bidding is open for private security firms, it is questionable whether the 12,000 French companies can find the manpower needed. Despite having 180,000 registered agents, most French companies are very small and already committed.

Jean-Philippe d’Hallivillé, coordinator with the OPSE, which groups 25 major private agencies involved in security, told me they are being handicapped in recruitment by new, tougher, French laws on who can be a security agent.

The ‘Global Security Law,’ voted by parliament in 2020, prevents agencies from hiring guards whose residency permits are less than five years old. This makes hiring difficult in a country where four out of ten security agents are not French nationals.

We could hire European Union nationals,” d’Hallivillé said, “but they must prove they can speak French and that usually implies a three-month course and a B-1, or threshold, level certificate of understanding and communication.” There is also a mandatory 175-hour French police training program, which authorities are suggesting can be reduced to 105 hours for the games.  

Mr. d’Hallivillé says he is confident “hundreds of agencies will apply.” But they need to hire a further 22,000 licensed guards for the Olympics and Paralympics. Another challenge is hiring many more female security guards who are the only ones allowed to frisk women. Today it is estimated 13.5% of the agents are women. “If 25% of the guards are women, that would be enough,” Mr. d’Hallivillé said.

They are hoping they can recruit university students who would like to make a little extra money during the summer. “There are three million students in France,’ d’Hallivillé said. “The pay is not so bad although the hours can be long.”

But the criminologist, Alain Bauer, is not convinced. “The whole plan must be revisited,” he told me,. “And validated by independent and irrefutable experts and the final say should be given back to the Paris Prefecture of Police.”

Bauer is not the only one to express his concern. In a leaked document from the Court of Auditors, (La Cour des comptes), an independent body controlling public spending, and published in the weekly Le Canard Enchainé last August, the situation is alarming.  The report recommends deploying 35,000 public security agents along with 10,000 soldiers and as many as 33,000 private agents, not in all, but each and every day during the games. The Cour also wants to downsize the opening ceremony and the 12,000 kilometer , 80-day Olympic Flame run through France which implies serious coordination between Gendarmes and Police.

The Cour des comptes security fears were reiterated this January along with concerns on public transport and over-spending. Originally estimated at €6.9 billion, entirely self funded through ticket sales and sponsor with no cost to the tax-payer, the budget now stands at €8.8 billion.

We will be ready, and security is at the heart of our priorities,” said Tony Estanguet, the President of the Paris Olympic Organizing Committee. He maintains the tax payer will not have to foot any of the bill.

  1. NOTE—This from Euronews (click here): Liverpool fans who flocked to the stadium, but who could not get in to see their team play, were tear-gassed by French police. A number of Liverpool supporters were also robbed or beaten by local gangs. Video surveillance footage of the attacks was deleted.