The French government announced Wednesday that it had slashed the crowd size for the opening ceremony of the Paris Olympics this July amid security and other organisational worries.
After months of speculation about the number of people permitted to watch the flotilla, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told the France 2 channel on Tuesday “around 300,000” ticketed fans would attend.
That is half the 600,000 that Darmanin had suggested in 2022 and is even smaller than the most recent estimates of 400-500,000, underlining the complexity of securing an event over six kilometres (four miles) of river.
“I know that we have the best security forces in the world and that we will succeed in showing not only that we can win medals (at the Olympics) but that we can play host to the world without any problems,” Darmanin told the channel.
The idea of a spectacular open-air parade with hundreds of boats gave cold sweats to many in the French security establishment because of the difficulty of controling the crowds and the risk of terror attacks.
Organisers and the Paris mayor’s office had initially imagined up to two million people in attendance, a source close to the negotiations told AFP.
Authorities have also had difficulties in persuading historic Parisian booksellers who line the river from temporarily removing their kiosks in order to make space for spectators.
The artistic director in charge of the ceremony, theatre director Thomas Jolly, told AFP last week that contingency plans were in place in the event of a direct terror threat or severe weather.
“We have lots of different plans, but the location for the ceremony will remain the Seine,” he said.
Darmanin said that 100,000 tickets had been sold for the best vantage points on the lower banks of the river, while another 200,000 would be given free access to the upper banks.
The figure of 300,000 people did not include others “who live and who will be able to rent to have parties along the Seine”, Darmanin added, referring to the hundreds of buildings that overlook the famed waterway.
The open-air boat parade is in keeping with promises to make the Paris Olympics “iconic”, with the local organising committee keen to break from past traditions in the way it stages the world’s biggest sporting event.
The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics ceremony is generally considered to be the most spectacular in history while the 2012 London ceremony, overseen by “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle, won rave reviews for showcasing Britain’s quirky side.
The huge opening ceremony in Paris with hundreds of thousands of free tickets was also part of the organisers’ vision of a “people’s Olympics” that would be widely accessible to the public.
That ambition has been undermined by high ticket prices for the sport, particularly for the athletics, leading to criticism from many Parisians.
The head of the Paris capital region, Valerie Pecresse, welcomed Wednesday’s downgrade of the opening ceremony to 300,000 people — still several times the number who usually witness the Olympics parade in an athletics stadium.
“It seems to us to be a much more reasonable level that provides security and safety for spectators as well as for travellers on public transport,” she said of the figure.
One senior French security figure told AFP recently that organisers had had “eyes bigger than their stomachs” when planning the opening and that their initial crowd estimates were “too high.”
France was placed on its highest alert for terror attacks in October after a suspected Islamist burst into a school in northern France and stabbed a teacher to death.
The country has been consistently targeted by Islamic extremists over the last decade, particularly from the Islamic State group, while Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza is seen as exacerbating domestic tensions.
“The terror risk is extremely strong,” Darmanin added on Wednesday.
The Olympics are set to take place from July 26-August 11 followed by the Paralympics from August 28-September 8.
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