the puzzle of the authorities to secure the path of the Olympic flame

Three weeks before the presentation of the path of the Olympic flame, the call for tenders to become a torchbearer is launched on 1 June. A security challenge that forces the authorities to investigate the profiles of the torchbearers.

At the end of the day, Friday June 23, Michel Pélieu thought of inviting his closest collaborators to “a little glass of friendship”. The president of the departmental council of the Hautes-Pyrénées will toast “in our region” on the floors of the headquarters, in Tarbes. A few hours before, the chosen one will have discovered it “at the same time as everyone else” the course of the Olympic flame of the Paris Games should pass through its mountains. But also all the work to do until D-Day: “I know the work that awaits us, especially with regard to safety. My teams started working on it with the prefecture, long before knowing the places where the flames would pass in our premises”.

Indeed, it is the beginning of another ordeal for the authorities, local communities and organizers: how to secure an outdoor relay over a distance equivalent to three Tours de France (12,000 km), crossing more than 60 departments, and the whose course is known a year in advance? Bertrand Cavallier, general of the gendarmerie and law enforcement expert, says aloud what many are thinking in a whisper: Anyone thinking of harming the event couldn’t be better served. You have a target, the flame, which is always in motion.” “We wait for it”bounces a sponsor. “If there were no overflows during this stint, it would still be a miracle”goes as far as betting a police commissioner based in Paris. “We know there are people preparing to put out the flame or handle it. It remains to be seen who, when and where.”

“We won’t be able to type every day”

In an eight-page note sent to the prefects at the end of April, and which franceinfo obtained, Gérald Darmanin also writes it in black and white. remembering “the risks and threats that affect this type of event”asks the interior minister of all senior officials “having particular attention to protest movements and claims likely to bring out actions with high media visibility”. In other words, the “terrorist risks, [de troubles à l’]public order or social movements”. “Since the beginning of the demonstrations against the pension reform, the tags often refer to the Paris Olympics”, observe this Parisian police commissioner.

An inscription painted on an RER entrance located in the Place de la Nation (Paris), on May 1, 2023, on the occasion of International Workers' Day.  (RAPHAEL GODET / FRANCEINFO)

Environmental associations feel particularly targeted by these calls for vigilance. Well named. An active member of Last Renovation, an organization known for its spectacular civil disobedience actions aimed at raising public awareness of the climate emergency, is already meeting with the authorities: “We will be there for the flame. Because symbolically and in the media it is very powerful. And because it will be a way to remind the whole world that Emmanuel Macron does little for the climate.

With the imminent formalization of the path of the flame in France, serious things also begin for Last Renovation. “What we already know, continues the activist on condition of anonymity, is that we won’t be able to type every day. Therefore, we will study the route carefully, favoring the urban places where the flame passes to capture the greatest number of cameras and people.

When it comes to events during sports broadcasts, the association knows everything. One of its activists had voluntarily chained himself to the Roland-Garros center court net during the 2022 men’s semi-final. It was also six of its members who disrupted stage 19 of the 109th edition of the Tour de France, in the Gers, lying on the road .

A Last Renovation climate activist is tied to the net of Roland-Garros center court (Paris), June 3, 2022, during the men's semi-final.  (THOMMAS SANSON / AFP)

Even at Extinction Rébellion we dream of hanging the Games on our own hunting table. A “JO” think tank will also see the light of day in the next three months. “Until then, discussions around the event took place within our local groups”, develops Galy, a young Parisian activist recently behind an action organized in front of the BNP headquarters in Paris. “In my group I brought the theme of the Games a month ago. The idea now is to pool the initiatives for this event”.

The threat of undercover militants

Among the actions on the table, the activists also envisage the recruitment of the 10,000 torch bearers, whom the organizing committee calls the “scouts”. The notices begin on Thursday 1 June, the suitors must be at least 15 years old and it is not mandatory to have a sports career to apply. “I’ve already started embellishing my CV and finding a good story, where I tell that I love the Games and the planet”argues a climate activist. “You cannot be in a better position than to be a torch bearer”, continues a member of the Saccage 2024 collective, the anti-Olympic movement in Paris, who applied under a false profile to become a volunteer during the Games.

To minimize the scenario of the Trojan horse, the organizers will have to take care at the time of the analysis to identify the stories that are not very credible. Each successful candidate will also be screened, we slip on the side of the organizers. “It’s a verification job to find out whether or not people are known to the services, whether they have a criminal record or are on file, for example, lists Bertrand Cavallier. But it’s also an open door to all new activists and anyone who’s ever been caught. Their name won’t appear anywhere.”

Environmental associations are well aware of this element: “If we want to have a chance to get there, we will obviously favor young activists who have no criminal record. Those who are known in the media or are active on social networks will remain in the background”, methodically reveals another member of Dernier Rénovation.

“If someone had jumped into the flame, I could have done nothing”

It is learned in the note sent by Gérald Darmanin to the prefects at the end of April “four cities will each be passed through day”from 8 May to 26 July 2024, curated by a “main convoy”. This “takes the form of a relay race over a 4-5km segment with a change of carriers every 200m”. On average, “160 Deliveries” must be carried out every day, between 8:00 and 19:30 The lanes will finally have to be privatized “at least 30 minutes before the arrival of the convoy and until the passage of the last vehicle”.

To supervise the route, the Home Office does not plan to set up a special police force, as happened in London in 2012. Priority to local staff, who know their local area “better than anyone”although “national resources and municipal police” it may come in reinforcement, the text specifies.

“There is a need for the local authority concerned to design robust and proportionate security measures.”

Gérald Darmanin, Minister of the Interior

in a note addressed to the prefects

It is that the last Olympic torch relay experience in France, before the Beijing (China) Olympics in 2008, revives a bad memory for the authorities. : Pro-Tibet protesters disrupted the event. “We were clearly in degraded mode”, recalls David Le Bars, secretary general of the Union of National Police Commissioners (SCPN). “I have kept as I could with my men a lot from the Quai de Seine, because the reinforcements were blocked further away, at the other end of the city. If someone had jumped into the flame, there was nothing I could have done. I hope that the lessons have been learned”.

Police officers try to contain pro-Tibet protesters, April 7, 2008, during the passing of the Olympic flame in Paris.  (JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

Officially, the Paris organizers have no alternative route in mind. However, adjustments on the details of the route will be possible according to the constraints encountered”, we explain in the corridors of Paris 2024. “In this sense, alternative routes could be defined based on potential local constraints.” OR ? When ? Which sectors are at risk? No comment. “Paris 2024 is working side by side with the Ministry of the Interior and the various prefectures to better anticipate the risks that may be encountered and identify solution”we sidestep the organizers.

Twelve months after seeing the flame on his land, Michel Pélieu still prefers not to think too much about it. “It is certain that we will be very exposed”, admits the president of the departmental council of the Hautes-Pyrénées. “But to put it very politely, I wouldn’t want the flashlight relay to go wrong in my department. I would find it hard to accept that an individual did something stupid in my house…”

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