#act power thursdays: Russia, France, and Russian football hooligans

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Russian “Khuligans” in action (Photo credit: Catherine Ivill, AMA/Getty Images)

This week is Football (no way I am calling it soccer) week on my blog (see here and here, and here), and I am in luck: Russia and France have delivered the perfect “Steilvorlage” (deep forward pass?) for #act power thursdays. Russian shenanigans in or in relation with France allow me to combine my current case study of thinking and acting in terms of power – Russia – and the ball that makes the world go round.

Three things might not have escaped your notice: One, Russia has been on a confrontation course with “the West” to expand its zone of influence for a while, and is using an ingeniously confusing approach of “coercive diplomacy” to achieve its aims, which leaves many European countries befuddled as to how to react. Two, France seems to be one of the countries the Kremlin has identified as a “weak link” in the coalition of countries opposing its attempt to uproot the existing European security architecture. Three, European football championships are currently happening on French soil, at the back-drop of massive social unrest, flagging economic growth and a looming terrorist threat.

Enter the Russian “khuligans”, which descended on Marseille last weekend. For a detailed description and analysis of what happened on 11 June, click here for a Le Monde article in French, and here for a Reuters account in English. One thing is clear – this is something qualitatively different from the traditional curse of drunk and violent hooligans out for a fight (looking at you, English fans…). We seem to be dealing with organised, trained and disciplined men inspired by Russian nationalist rhetoric and beliefs, meting out planned and tactically well-executed raids. The effect was quite striking: Russians going on an organised rampage on foreign soil, smashing their English opponents and outsmarting French police forces, which looked uncharacteristically timid and ineffective on the occasion.

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#Fiersdetrebleus – The Gallic rooster with nicely pointy Eiffel towers

It is safe to assume that the Kremlin is perfectly “au courant“ of these groups of supporters, as well as of their travel plans. Yet whether this is actually coordinated from above or just tacitly condoned is perfectly irrelevant. “Khuliganism” helpfully underscores a refrain Russia likes to sing about the European Union and its member states. Europe, in this case France, is portrayed as a decrepit reservoir of depraved weaklings, too indecisive to act – Never mind the fact that what concerns French “forces de l’ordre”, past and potential future terrorist attacks, nation-wide strikes plus a month of football matches are taxing an already overstretched and exhausted French police force and the military to the limit. 

People should think twice to label such agitations as merely happenstance and/ or inconsequential. Perceptions of a country drive foreign investment decisions, for example. A concerted attack on the image of a country has an impact on “nation branding”, and France is in dire need of some positive news.

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Vladimir Putin very busy signing thank you notes (Twitter Spoof Account)

So, what else is going in French-Russian news? Quite a bit. On 8 June, the French Senate voted a motion – by a staggering count of 302 to 16 – appealing to the government to gradually lift sanctions against Russia. Albeit non-binding, this vote nevertheless illustrates how many are sympathetic to the Russian version of events in the ongoing Ukraine crisis, rather than to the Minsk agreements jointly negotiated by their own government.

And this Thursday, Nicolas Sarkozy, adamant to snatch the Les Républicains’ nomination for next year’s French presidential election despite being implicated in several law-suits linked to his political past put on his best Putin fan-boy act in St. Petersburg.

What explains such seemingly broad and visible pro-Russian/ pro-Kremlin support in France? It is a combination of cultural affinity (largely imagined), political realism (the belief that Russia is a geopolitical force one needs to reckon with) and traditional political orientation (instinctive anti-Americanism, and these days, more and more anti-EU ressentiment). In addition, Russia can count on a number of pro-Russian networks in France – in academia, in politics, in the economic sphere, in the media… Liberation detailed them in an in-depth feature end of 2014 called “The seven families in the sleeve of the Kremlin”, which ruffled a few feathers. On the topic of Russian soft power in France, see also Nicolas Hénin’s recent book, ”La France russe“ published this spring.

All this does not mean that the French elite is in the pocket of the Kremlin. In fact, it is the Americans that still reign supreme when it comes to exerting influence in France. Neither does it mean that Putin is universally admired by the French public, far from that. But it gives an indication that France is certainly not immune to the siren song of anti-EU populism, something which Russia intends to use to its advantage.

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Court in Marseille (JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER / REUTERS)

So will Russia’s game strategy of “coercive diplomacy” ultimately be victorious? Only time will tell. At least what concerns on and off the football pitch in France, the results are not conclusive. Russia’s team just lost to Slovakia. For the violent exactions of its fans, UEFA has handed Russia and England a suspended disqualification. This Thursday, three Russian fans implicated in violence against English supporters in Marseille on 11 June got prison terms ranging from one to two years. And the “boss” of Russian fans, far-right leader of the Russian
football supporters’ association Alexander Shprygin, as well as 19 other Russians will be sent home shortly

It’s a game, albeit a serious one. “The ball is round and the match lasts 90 minutes“ as Sepp Herberger, German coach at the time of the 1954 World Cup win was wont to say. And a lot of things can happen during a match.

Johanna M

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