Pressure mounts on France, with Paris 2024 just 3 months away.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

French President Emmanuel Macron promised the opening ceremony of the Paris 2024 Olympics on the banks of the River Seine in July would be a “moment of beauty, art, celebration of sports and our values.”

Instead, the grand opening and accompanying circus surrounding the sporting extravaganza threatens to turn into a nightmare for France’s security apparatus.

Earlier this month, Macron for the first time opened the door to moving the Olympics opening ceremony away from the Seine to a more conventional venue like the Stade de France, which will also host track and field events.

The Seine, which winds its way through the heart of Paris, is vulnerable to drone attacks and snipers, officials fear. The recent resurgence of Islamic State-linked groups — which carried out a deadly mass shooting in Moscow and menaced football matches across Europe — and Russian-backed cyberattacks are also freaking out French authorities.

France has already slashed in half the number of people allowed to attend the proposed ceremony on the Seine to around 300,000, while tightening entrance requirements.

But that’s still not putting the security services at ease. Not even close.

Key law enforcement officials involved in securing the Olympics said people were “completely exhausted” and “really preoccupied” just three months before the Games begin on July 26.

Fears are growing that the government has neglected warnings and advice in recent months, with one French defense industry representative saying that “now it is too late.”

Security incidents have already disrupted the preparations. 

Since February, French media have reported on three separate incidents concerning laptops being stolen which allegedly contained information about security matters related to the Olympics. The prosecutor’s office said these thefts did not involve sensitive information, and it is unclear whether these repeated incidents were targeted or random.

Most recently, the house of an employee working for Thales — one of the private companies responsible for securing the Games — was broken into and a company laptop was stolen. Thales said to POLITICO that the employee was not working on sensitive security matters.

The Ministry of Interior refused to comment on whether the thefts were being coordinated to weaken security plans for the world’s most iconic, global sporting event.

Opening ceremony ‘Plan B’

After the shooting in Moscow, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said that authorities were foiling terror attacks “every month” and pledged that security services would be ready in time to handle all threats during the Olympics, which are expected to welcome 13 million visitors to Paris.

“Plan B has become Plan A,” Darmanin told senators last month when presenting the down-scaled plans for the opening ceremony. One reason for drastically reducing the opening ceremony was the major concern over drones loaded with lethal ammunition, he added. “It was either this or no opening ceremony,” he said.

France’s recent history of suffering large-scale attacks from Islamist groups — from Charlie Hebdo to the Bataclan — has been another trigger for increased preventative measures.

“It’s not a secret: France has lived with the threat of terror attacks,” Bruno Le Ray, head of security for the Paris Olympic Committee and a former high-ranking military official, told POLITICO. He added that a dedicated Olympic intelligence service had been established to consolidate information gathered on all terrorist threats.

“From the outset, all plans were built assuming that there would be a terrorist threat. Every piece of equipment, from construction, integrated this notion,” he added.

But the opening ceremony is only one of several security challenges, said Gérard Lacroix, deputy general for security at the French defense industry association (GICAT). 

France has already slashed in half the number of people allowed to attend the proposed ceremony on the Seine to around 300,000, while tightening entrance requirements. | Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

When France won the bid to host, GICAT made a proposal to the government that specified the Games’ security needs — including anti-drone detection technology and crowd control measures — which GICAT said the French government chose not to follow.

“We are really preoccupied,” Lacroix told POLITICO. “We have been working on this proposal for five years … but we have not been followed by the French government. Now it is too late, we cross our fingers.”

In a controversial step, the French parliament also approved a bill that would allow the experimental use of large-scale, real-time camera systems supported by algorithms to spot suspicious behavior — like abandoned items and people moving against the flow— a first in Europe and a potential clash with the EU’s new AI rulebook.

‘Exhausted’ police

The French interior minister has brushed off accusations of unpreparedness.

“I work every day to ensure that this opening ceremony is a moment of French pride,” Darmanin said in an interview with Le Parisien earlier this month. “Terrorism can affect anyone, at any time. And ironically, as long as they are highly secure, major events are undoubtedly among the safest places.”

For the Games, security needs will be split between state and private enterprises, with a total of 22,000 private security agents deployed by companies to secure the sites and 45,000 military and police forces mobilized for the surrounding areas. 

Police officers in France are not allowed to strike, but an increase in sick leave in certain precincts over recent years has been seen as a disguised form of protest. | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

French taxpayers fear that they will foot the bill for the event’s security costs. In March, the national audit court’s president, Pierre Moscovici, said public spending could end up between €3 billion and €5 billion, potentially overrunning the initial €3 billion estimate. Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra told lawmakers she was not yet able to give a figure for the Games’ security budget.

Anthony Caillé, head of the CGT Police Union, said French law enforcement concerns had not been addressed by the interior ministry who did not involve them in any security briefings. The Olympics arrive two years after a security debacle at the Stade de France during the Champions League final, for which the police, interior ministry and European football’s governing body each copped a share of the blame.

“We’ve already handled the anti-COP protests, two waves of terrorist attacks, and anti-pension reform protests … ” Caillé told POLITICO. “We’re completely exhausted.”

Police officers in France are not allowed to strike, but an increase in sick leave in certain precincts over recent years has been seen as a disguised form of protest.

Caillé warned this could happen again during the Olympics.

Cyber terrorism threat

France’s cybersecurity agency (ANSSI) has also been preparing for the event for the last two years, performing penetration testing and raising awareness “on a massive scale.”

It wants to protect all the entities that will be involved in the Olympics, including critical infrastructure like energy and transport.

At a press conference in February, Macron said that “Vladimir Putin’s Russia has become a systematic actor of destabilization in the world,” and that Russian cyberattacks were an “aggression” against France.

“The goal for us is not to block 100 percent of the attacks that will happen during the Olympics,” Vincent Strubel, the director of ANSSI, told POLITICO. “The goal is to block most of the attacks by raising the security level.”

During the 2018 Winter Olympics hosted in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the opening ceremony was disrupted by a malware known as “Olympic Destroyer” which knocked computers offline by deleting critical system files leading to the Olympic websites, display monitors and the public Wi-Fi crashing. A Russian hacker group was to blame, according to the U.S. and U.K. governments.

France needs to be prepared for more attacks on the Games, said Franz Regul, head of cybersecurity for the Paris Olympic Committee.

“We already see some simmering activities, but obviously the most dangerous actors will be state actors and they’ll strike us when it hurts more: during the opening ceremony or initial games,” he said.

The worst-case scenario, according to Regul, would be a coordinated cyber and terror attack, with the digital attack taking out crucial security or surveillance systems.

“So far, there is no documented case of cyber terrorism [against the Olympics],” he said. “I would very much not like to be the first chief information security officer in history to face one.”