French police debut drones at stadiums

Usually when we report a drone sighting in the vicinity of a sports arena, it is because a naughty drone user is trying to get a peek on the action below.

It has happened twice already in the English premiership, where football matches had to be stopped to ensure player safety when small drones began hovering over the stadiums when play was still going on.

But last Saturday, police in France flew drones over the Parc des Princes stadium, ostensibly to monitor and maintain peace during a Ligue 1 match featuring Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Lorient.

The drones’ presence as additional backup to police officers working at the football ground had been announced 24 hours earlier and reportedly followed the necessary authorisation channels.

In their rather terse and announcement, the police said the purpose of the surveillance was “to capture video and photographic images.”

They did not explain why they needed to capture those images and videos.

Not surprisingly, stadium going fans were not amused by this development, which – going by responses to the announcement on social media – they viewed as an invasion of their privacy and an abuse of football fans as a test ground for future widespread deployment of drones to spy on people going about their business in public places.

One of the biggest concerns people had was the suspicion that the drones might be installed with facial recognition software; which the soccer fans showed real aversion to.

“That’s it, drones are everywhere and for everything now,” asked one respondent.

“I don’t know but apart from the Champions League for football (it wasn’t a gift and short notice), there is no anarchy in Ligue 1, so why (are the drones coming to stadiums)?”

Another responder said; “(There is) no risk, but it doesn’t matter. They are only football supporters, second-class citizens on whom all experiments contravening the most basic individual rights are possible.”

Perhaps it is the timing of the introduction of drones by law enforcement agents into stadiums that is less than ideal; coming at a time when relations between the police and the public are at a real low, in the aftermath of a series of protests triggered by the shooting of Nahel Merzouk by the police on June 3 this year.

Reports from the region speculated that the decision to deploy drones during a low-risk match could suggest that the objective was more about raising awareness and introducing the public to drone use in policing operations; rather than addressing hardcore security concerns.

And you have to understand the police position. With just a year left until Day Zero to the Olympic Games in Paris, police in the country have to do all they can to ensure that the games will proceed without incident. Already, security authorities in the country have said they are working towards a fool proof plan to keep everyone safe during Paris 2024; and the threats include criminal drone use by terrorists.

Drones have been used in France recently to monitor crowd trouble during street protests, but this is the first time they have been deployed to a football stadium; and could mark a potential first step towards regular use of drones for surveillance and security by law enforcement in France.

Similarly, the use of drone surveillance by police has been met with immediate and fierce hostility in the past, particularly when they were used to enforce COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

In response, the French parliament had to pass legislation that requires approval and limited the storage of captured drone images. Despite these precautions, the police have rarely used drones for surveillance due to ongoing opposition. The recent deployment during the rioting week in suburban cities was primarily for situational awareness.

The Préfecture de Police is of the three main police forces of France, which falls under the Ministry of the Interior. It provides the preventive police force for Paris and the Seine regions and its uniformed members, known as gardiens de la paix (“guardians of the peace”), are responsible for traffic and crowd control, and are highly motorised.

Now, they have added drones to their mobility.


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