Transnational Teach-in: Anti-Olympics Organizing in France

By Gigi Droesch

On June 27, NOlympics LA hosted the third event in its transnational teach-in series, titled “NO to the Games!: Organizing to abolish the Olympics in France.” The presentation and discussion was led by Non aux JO2024 à Paris member Natsuko Sasaki.

Sasaki began the presentation by comparing the anti-Olympic movement in Paris to the anti-Olympic movement in Los Angeles. Compared to Los Angeles, where the Olympics are assumed to be relatively popular (an IOC poll found 78% of Angelenos support the Games, though this statistic is highly problematic), only 63% of Parisians and 63% of French people supported the Games in 2017. There has been little public debate or even media coverage since then. Paris mayoral candidate Danielle Simonnet from the La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) party pledged to hold a referendum on hosting the Games, but she lost the election (with 4.6% of votes) and her pledge has not been taken seriously by French media or her opponents.

Sasaki explained the differences between Paris’s opposition group and other groups around the world. Unlike Hangorin no Kai or NOlympics LA, she said, Non aux JO2024 à Paris is not made up of “like-minded people,” drawing instead on members from a range of political perspectives. As a result, the group has some internal organizational problems and Sasaki considers it the least dynamic among future host cities of the Summer Games.

Another complication arises from the nature of political support for the Olympics in France. Along with obvious Olympic boosters like advertisers, developers, and the tourism industry, many seemingly progressive forces like the Socialist Party, Communist Party, and Europe Ecological Green Party support the Olympics. Their support is in line with what former London Mayor Ken Livingston said about the London 2012 Games: “I didn’t bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport. I bid for the Olympics because it’s the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the Government to develop the East End.” This point, however, lacks an analysis of the risks of displacement and heightened policing in any top-down attempt to ‘develop’ an underserved neighborhood. In addition to suspect claims that the Olympics will bring in more money for improving communities, Sasaki explained that left-leaning groups defend the Games along lines of international fraternity (the claim that the Olympic Games bring people from different nations together, forgetting the overt nationalism in the rhetoric of every country’s bidding and promotional process for the Games) and the opportunity for ecological transition (in the case of the Paris Games, using the Seine River for the triathlon and creating a zero-carbon Olympic village.) NOlympics LA’s teach-in with Anti Pyeongchang Olympics Alliance organizer Morae River already dispelled the claim that the Olympics can be held without degrading the environment.

Sasaki made clear, however, that despite some non-traditional support for the Games, those benefiting from the Olympics are the same as always: real estate developers. She showed a short promotional video for an area of Paris currently being gentrified, Saint-Denis. LA-based attendees joked that only one person in the entire world scores the background music for all promotional videos of this kind.

Even following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games, most journalists and politicians are failing to seriously grapple with the potential consequences of hosting an Olympics in Paris, Sasaki said. She explained that Covid-19 has the potential to cause huge financial consequences and multiply the already enormous Paris 2024 budget, much of which will be funded by the public. She pointed out that even IOC member Guy Drut says plans for the Paris 2024 Olympics are “obsolete and outdated,” but many French elites remain complacent. 

Nonetheless, the shifting context motivated Non aux JO2024 à Paris to launch a petition to cancel the 2024 Games. Eighteen other organizations have joined as cosponsors of the petition, including 16 groups from France and two transnational allies (Hangorin no Kai and NOlympics LA). Several of the French cosponsors are groups fighting against Grands Projets Inutiles et Imposés (GPIIs) — a useful French term for unnecessary top-down mega development projects. The movement against GPIIs has grown since the early 2018 victory of an autonomous zone protest (Zone à defender – ZAD) against an airport that had been planned for Notre-Dame-des-Landes in western France. The petition cosponsors understand that the Olympics and other GPIIs are driven by many of the same forces and produce similar inequalities and exclusions. While not everyone in the anti-GPII movement opposes the Olympics, for now, the potential for coalition building around such top-down exclusionary projects is a space to watch.

One group notable for its absence from the petition’s signatories is the Comité de Vigilance JO2024 Saint-Denis. The Comité de Vigilance is a network of groups in Saint-Denis and Saint-Ouen, two areas of Paris that will be heavily impacted by the development of Olympic infrastructure. They oppose some specific projects tied to the Games but do not oppose the Olympics in its entirety, hoping instead to negotiate with the Paris 2024 organizers to adjust Olympics proposals. They hope their neighborhoods will gain jobs — a claim always touted by boosters despite little evidence that Olympics boost employment in the long-run; they do not oppose the construction of the Olympic Aquatic Center because they want a pool in Saint-Denis; and some members defend the Games for the sake of sports.

Another difficulty in getting the French public on board with resistance is the national pride that Olympics boosters have fostered in France. The father of the modern Olympics, Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, is still celebrated through streets and arenas that bear his name today, despite his eugenicist and sexist beliefs.

After the presentation the teach-in transitioned into a loosely structured discussion between Sasaki, members of NOlympics LA, and other anti-Olympics activists and academics from around the world. Participants compared the relatively unique struggles of Non aux JO2024 à Paris with other anti-Olympics movements, and reflected on the ways the different groups have shown transnational solidarity with each other and boosted each other’s efforts.

The next teach-in in the “Stop Playing Games” series is scheduled for July 18th at 12pm PST and will feature organizers from the Lennox Inglewood Tenants Union and Buried Under the Blue, discussing resistance to stadium-driven displacement in Los Angeles.