As riots raged around France earlier this month, infrastructure for next year’s Paris Olympics risked becoming engulfed in the violence, adding a fresh worry for organisers who face a head-spinning list of security challenges one year before the Games start.
Surveillance was increased around the under-construction Olympic athletes’ village, media centre and swimming complex which are in the deprived Seine-Saint-Denis area of northeast Paris, one of the hotspots of the rioting.
In the end, a building which will house a training pool suffered minor damage to its facade when an adjacent bus depot went up in flames and an attempted arson attack on the media centre was thwarted by two alert security guards.
“We were very close to having a major problem,” Nicolas Ferrand, head of the Solideoorganisation in charge of Olympics construction work, said afterwards.
The chaotic street scenes were an unwelcome reminder of last year’s Champions League final in Paris, which was held at the national stadium in Seine-Saint-Denis that will host the athletics events at the Olympics.
Gangs of youths preyed on football fans attending the 2022 climax to the European football season, many of whom were assaulted and robbed as they made their way out of the stadium.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach this week sought to reassure people planning to travel to Paris.
“We are very confident that the Games can and will happen in a peaceful environment,” he told reporters.
The need to manage street crime around the Olympic venues is a challenge French security forces are familiar with, former national police chief Frederic Pechenard told AFP.
“Delinquency, potentially riots, or strikes are worries for organisers, but generally secondary ones,” he explained.
“If I was in charge of security, which very fortunately I’m not, it’s a terror attack that would worry me the most.”
The biggest headache is securing what promises to be the most ambitious opening ceremony in Olympic history.
Rather than the usual procession in the athletics stadium, around a hundred boats carrying sporting delegations are set to sail through the middle of the City of Light on the river Seine.
Up to half a million people will have tickets to witness the open-air extravaganza that will see the flotilla travel along a six-kilometre (3.7-mile) route overlooked by thousands of buildings.
Pechenard, who became a politician for the opposition Republicans party after serving as national police chief from 2007-2012, said security services were naturally worried.
“Everyone knows that it won’t be easy to secure,” he explained. “The biggest risk is someone acting on their own who decides to cause an incident.”
Large terror plots involving multiple people are seen as easier to detect and disrupt by intelligence services, which have prevented 39 attacks in France in the last five years, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in December last year.
Pechenard said “100 percent safety” was impossible at any large public event and overall he remained “optimistic” because of the strong team in charge of security from the interior ministry to the organising committee.
“There will be unprecedented security arrangements in place,” chief Paris 2024 organiser Tony Estanguet, a three-time Olympic gold medallist in canoeing, told reporters on Tuesday. “I think it will be the safest place on the planet, where you can be in total security.”
With so much space to guard around the opening ceremony, as well as the venues, security forces are banking on the help of controversial crowd-monitoring technology and private-sector manpower.
Cameras linked to AI-assisted software are set to be deployed, capable of detecting potential dangers and suspicious movements that alert police to problems developing before they are visible to officers on the ground.
Some left-wing EU lawmakers have warned that the system “creates a surveillance precedent never before seen in Europe”, while domestic critics worry it could be deployed permanently.
Attempts to recruit up to 22,000 private security agents have also run into problems, with only around a quarter of the positions filled so far and industry insiders complaining the money on offer is too low.
Interior Minister Darmanin has already raised the possibility of the armed forces being drafted in to fill any shortfalls, echoing a similar move by Britain for the 2012 London Olympics.
He is under immense pressure from President Emmanuel Macron to ensure the Games pass off without a hitch in front of an expected television audience of more than a billion people.
“The president wants everything to go smoothly for the international image of the country,” a minister told AFP this week on condition of anonymity. “If something goes wrong, it’s never forgotten.”