English football fans are notorious for making an impression on their travels. But boisterous behaviour aside, Tottenham fans appear to have been caught up in a fight for territory and political ideals in Lyon’s Old Town.
The 16th century quarter attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year and is also home to a group known as the “House of Identity” a French far-right nationalist party, ironically (or perhaps even deliberately) based in Rue Juiverie, or Jewishness Road, just behind the Smoking Dog pub.
Its supporters have often been linked to violence and intimidation of local shop owners, according to Lyon’s Rue89 journalist Lauren Burlet.
“What we know is that one of the three people arrested is a member of the ‘Identitaire movement’, as it’s called by the police. That means there could be a political motive (behind the attack), but it’s too early to say for sure what exactly that motive is. What is sure is that hooligans, meaning certain Olympique Lyonnais supporters, recruit from radical, far-right groups,” said Burlet.
There was much reluctance among local shop owners to speak about the group, but one trader told euronews that local businesses have been ‘taken hostage’ by the ‘Identitaires’.
Before joining euronews, I worked for two years in the Smoking Dog pub and lived in a first floor apartment directly above the bar. Even now, many years later, I still consider myself a regular customer. As a result of Olympique Lyonnais’ footballing success over the last decade I have seen dozens of European clubs’ fans descend on the Smoking Dog for a few pre-match drinks, but I have never witnessed anything like what happened on Wednesday night.
Sure, English football fans tend to get drunk, some excessively. Yes, they are loud and are not shy about letting the entire Vieux Lyon district hear their teams’ terrace chants. Some fans are better than others: while it’s great to see English football fans offering to buy drinks for their French hosts and genuinely making an effort to meet the locals, on occasions I have been disgusted, ashamed even, at the rude and disrespectful behaviour of some football fans abroad. In the worst cases, local residents have just simply had to grin and bear it, perhaps consoling themselves in the knowledge that whichever ‘Army’ (as the fans call themselves) is in town, it’s a boost to local business.
I met some of the Tottenham fans in the Smoking Dog just hours before the trouble started and I have to say they were among the best-behaved I’d come across. What was different about this particular pre-game tour of the local bars was the fact that Tottenham Hotspur Football Club is considered a Jewish club, a club with more Jewish supporters than most others. It is why the Spurs fans bizarrely, yet proudly, call themselves the ‘Yid Army’. That is what was different about the arrival of Spurs fans. It added a racial edge to what was already a potentially explosive mix of football, tribalism and alcohol. A handful of young, local, anti-Semitic minded Lyonnais thugs managed to convince a few dozen of their bored, young, non-political but football fanatic peers that it would be fun to ‘go fight the English scum at the Smoking Dog’ and ‘show those English Jews that they’re on OUR patch.’ When they did, the English fans retaliated.
The Smoking Dog will be back serving pints by the weekend but there is a problem in Lyon that will take more time and more imagination to fix. And it’s a very similar problem to the one England faced in the dark Hooligan days of the 1980s.
“They are here to mark their territory and not to protect the district, contrary to what they say,” he said. “They don’t hide their faces, everyone knows who they are. And sometimes we do see Nazi salutes from them,” said one restaurant owner who did not want to be named.
Sentiments shared by a local restaurateur who is preparing to sell his business, saying he’s been driven out by the group: “Other shop-owners too have been victims of the damage they have caused here in St Jean. Elderly people, women, families, children, shop-owners, craftsmen, workers in liberal jobs, they all know that here, in the St Jean district, it belongs to the Identitaires.”
Les Identitaires deny any involvement with Wednesday’s violence. Damien Rieu, a spokesman for the group, told euronews: “It was a purely a question of (football) supporters. These kinds of fight always occur when OL (Olympique Lyonnais) play against a European club. We (Les Identitaires) are victims of a campaign led by far-left activists to demonise us. They pretend we’re responsible for any bad thing that happens in Old Lyon.”
Rieu adds “It is wrong to say that ALL shop-owners complain about us. Only the left-wing ones do. There are actually numerous shop-owners who support us.” He says that ‘Les Identitaires’ have become so well-known that people automatically associate the group with anything to do with the far-right, and that this association is a false one. “Most extreme-right activists are not our members,” he insists.
According to the authorities, one of the three local men arrested after Wednesday’s attack was an Identitaire, while the other two were OL supporters already known to police. Another group known as the GUD (Groupe Union Défense) appeared on its facebook page to claim that one of the three was a member of its organisation, a far-right students group founded in the 1960s and that carries with it a reputation for violence. The facebook post on Thursday read: “In support of the three Lyonnais in custody since last night; particular thoughts go out to our GUDard friend who is among them. Your repression will not stop our convictions!”
It is unclear whether the ‘GUDard’ in custody is the same person as the one referred to by police as an ‘Identitaire’. The plethora of small groups with agendas of varying degrees of similitude serves only to confuse who is a member of which group; some individuals may be members of several groups at the same time.
But what is sure is that there are individuals bent on violence.
In a district reliant on tourism, Wednesday’s violence and the negative international publicity is a source of great embarrassment to local authorities. Attacks on local shop-owners is one thing, attacks on tourists are another entirely.
Until now police say they have been unable to shut down Les Identitaires. With tourists rather than locals now the victims, perhaps the local authorities will act. It is what police promised the owner of Lyon’s Smoking Dog.
But closing down one group is unlikely to solve the problem; if any of its members are trouble-makers, they will simply assemble elsewhere.