Shortly after 10pm on December 14, moments after France defeated Morocco en route to the World Cup final in Qatar, a flood of football fans hit the streets of Paris, converging on the Champs-Elysées, the French capital’s traditional rallying point for jubilant supporters.
Most were draped in the French tricolour, though a sizeable contingent – including many French citizens of Moroccan descent – waved the red-and-green flag of the Lions of the Atlas. Both were in celebratory mode, with Morocco’s fans determined to pay tribute to an extraordinary World Cup run.
One group’s attire, however, pointed to other plans.
Outside a bar in the capital’s swanky 17th arrondissement, about a mile away from the Champs-Elysées, police officers acting on intelligence detained several dozen individuals suspected of planning to carry out a racist rampage.
Body searches revealed an arsenal of weapons that included batons, tear gas canisters, shin guards and tactical gloves. One was held in possession of stickers with the three letters GUD, standing for “Groupe Union Défense”, a far-right student group notorious for its violence, which became dormant at the start of the century but has recently made a comeback.
Ten months later, seven of them were brought before the Paris Criminal Court on Friday on charges of “carrying prohibited weapons” and “forming a group with a view to committing violence and damage”, offences punishable with up to 10 years in jail.
In a startling twist, however, the entire case was thrown out on procedural grounds just hours into the trial, with the presiding judge arguing that police had exceeded their mandate in carrying out the arrests – and ordering the seven suspects to walk free.
Among the 38 people detained on December 14, about half were known to have belonged to a variety of far-right groups, most of them now outlawed. A dozen were labelled “fiché S”, indicating a potential threat to national security. The majority were from the Paris region, though a handful had travelled from as far as Brittany.
The seven men in the dock on Friday included Marc de Cacqueray-Valménier, a central figure in the French ultra-droite (ultra-right) – a term used to refer to extreme-right groups with neo-Nazi sympathies. He is believed to have led the militant group Zouaves Paris – a GUD offshoot that was banned last year.
At just 24 years of age, the scion of a family of ultra-Catholic aristocrats has already had multiple run-ins with the law, including a suspended jail sentence for his involvement in violent clashes on the sidelines of a Yellow Vest protest at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris in December 2018.
In January 2022, Cacqueray-Valménier was sentenced to a year in prison for attacking the Saint-Sauveur bar in Paris, a popular anti-fascist hideout, though he has appealed the conviction. He is also under investigation for a violent attack on anti-racism activists who disrupted a campaign rally in support of far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour.
Police investigating the alleged plot to attack Moroccan fans believe Cacqueray-Valménier summoned his acolytes via a Telegram message that called for a “general mobilisation to defend the flag from the Moroccan hordes”, French daily Libération reported on Thursday, citing transcripts of police interrogations.
He is also believed to have instructed participants to delete all messages, a tactic that hindered investigators’ efforts to gather evidence – and partly explained the small number of defendants in the dock, one of whom tried unsuccessfully to delete the messaging app before investigators seized it.
During his interrogation, Cacqueray-Valménier denied any role in the alleged plot, claiming he was “no longer a militant” and that he “identified with no ideology”. Hailing the court’s decision to quash the case on Friday, his lawyer Clément Diakonoff accused politicians of “creating a myth around” Cacqueray-Valménier and “designating him as a target”.
‘Clash of civilisations’
Police’s decision to carry out preventive arrests, before any violence had been committed, ultimately undermined the case against the seven suspects. While it may have helped avert disturbances in Paris, racist attacks involving far-right activists were reported elsewhere in France, despite the deployment of 10,000 police officers across the country.
In Lyon, a hotbed of far-right militancy, several dozen men wearing balaclavas attacked fans in a central square to cries of “bleu, blanc, rouge, France for the French”. One officer spoke of a “volatile mix of ultra-right activists and football hooligans”.
Racist assaults were also reported in Nantes, Montpellier and Nice, where masked men chased after Moroccan supporters shouting “Out with the Arabs”, while hooligans marched through central Strasbourg waving neo-Nazi symbols.
While the incidents involved only a few hundred people across the country, they reflect the growing visibility and assertiveness of France’s militant far right, with small groups jostling for influence and notoriety in a fragmented landscape.
In a July interview with Le Monde, Nicolas Lerner, the head of France’s internal intelligence agency, the DGSI, spoke of a “highly alarming rise in violent actions or intimidations by a segment of the ultra-right”, whose targets include immigrants, rights activists and elected officials.
Anti-racism advocates and politicians on the left have accused the political far right of spreading inflammatory rhetoric in the run-up to the World Cup match, stoking hostility towards populations of immigrant descent with ties to former French colonies, such as Morocco.
Damien Rieu, a close ally of Zemmour, described the historic semi-final as a “clash of civilisations”, while Zemmour himself reiterated his complaint that the French squad featured too many players with “foreign-sounding names”.
When French citizens “have a heart that beats for another country (…) it raises questions about their assimilation” into French society, argued Sébastien Chenu, a lawmaker in Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and a deputy head of the French National Assembly, speaking on France 2 television.
“In the week leading up to the France-Morocco game, parts of the far right and some in the media shaped public perceptions by repeatedly warning that incidents were bound to occur,” left-wing lawmaker Thomas Portes, the head of the National Observatory of the Far Right, told FRANCE 24 earlier this year. “When you fan the flames of hatred and blow on embers that are already burning, unacceptable things happen.”
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