A sudden show of force by riot troops seeking to avoid violence before a World Cup playoff between England and Argentina triggered insults, scuffles and wild baton charges early today in the center of this industrial city.
Police arrested several English football fans and local toughs. There were some minor injuries, mostly caused during crowd stampedes.In a separate incident by the stadium, local French-Tunisian youths insulted and attacked English fans, apparently in retaliation for skirmishes in Marseille two weeks ago, and English fans fought back. Police intervened, arresting about nine locals and an Englishman. Local youths burned several cars.
Trouble downtown began shortly after 11 p.m. Monday night, when a huge outdoor screen that showed the Netherlands-Yugoslavia game went blank. Its last image was a message saying it would not show the England-Argentina match Tonight.
Also at 11 p.m., bars and restaurants shut their doors. Hundreds of police with riot helmets and shields moved in to clear the area.
Until then, hundreds of Englishmen, scores of Argentines, and a number of French youths had been drinking peacefully together in the balmy open air. A band played on a makeshift stage, and stands served up beer and hot dogs.
But the mood was already tense. Only 2,000 tickets had been made available in England for perhaps 30,000 people who are coming for the game. Scalper prices approach $800 each.
Some English fans yelled at the police and began singing what has become their World Cup trademark in the face of police and local opposition: "No surrender, no surrender to the IRA" - a reference to troubles in Northern Ireland. Within minutes, there were scuffles in the streets.
Police officials had no immediate comment, but all sides - including British police hooligan spotters - faulted the French police.
"Why did they do that?" asked Ben Murphy, 22, an English engineering student from Lincoln, as he watched columns of nervous police in riot gear, backed by burly plainclothes officers, tighten cordons around the brightly lit City Hall square.
"This was ridiculous, just looking for trouble," said Mariano Recalde, 26, a lawyer who flew from Buenos Aires to watch Argentina play. "We're just trying to get to our hotel, but we're blocked in on all sides. The cops panic easily here, don't they?"
Farid Belaid, 22, a French-Algerian printer from a working-class suburb of Saint-Etienne, blamed the police for overreacting against young Arabs and English fans who, he said, they assumed were all troublemakers.
As police charged, some of the English threatened television cameramen, photographers and reporters, blaming them for the trouble.
An Englishman with shaved head and earrings threw beer on one French photographer. Among obscenities, he shouted: "It's because of you they call us hooligans."
Shortly after, another English fan told the same photographer: "Take your cameras and leave. You're not welcome here."
Two British policemen in football-fan dress, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said that French police might have avoided trouble by quietly isolating potential troublemakers ahead of time, while keeping their main force out of sight.
He confirmed that Scotland Yard had lent experts to spot fans likely to incite trouble. But, he added with a laugh, "Who's to say the French will listen?"
The British agreed that a match between England and Argentina, with their 32-year-old football grudge and the Falklands War of 1982, had serious potential for violence.
Local authorities are allowing beer and alcohol to be sold up until 11 p.m. Tuesday night, which is just as the match ends. Then bars close, and police hope for the best.
Nigel Bobroff, a young company director from London, is taking no chances. He left his wife and 4-month-old daughter in Lyon, 36 miles away, while he sees the game.
With a laugh, he explained why: "England has the best football fans in the world, but the trouble is that it also has the worst."