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Euro 2016: In city reeling from terrorism - happy Northern Ireland football fans help Paris rediscover its joie de vivre

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 25/06/2016

Harry Ferson (centre) and his sons Steve (left) and Gary
Harry Ferson (centre) and his sons Steve (left) and Gary
Welsh fans Andrew Joblin and Johnny Evan
Steven Shaw and Alison McKeegan from Limavady

The faces of the dead stare out at the statue that towers over Place de la République at the crossroads of Paris's third, tenth and eleventh districts.

A French tricolour hanging nearby reads "13.11.15 nous noublierons jamais" - we will never forget. And they have not forgotten.

In the capital, a sense of grief overshadows the enthusiasm that should be sweeping the country at the height of a major football tournament.

But in the last week, something has changed in Paris. A sense of jubilation and exuberance lost after the terror attacks of last November has returned to the streets.

The Northern Ireland fans who have won the hearts of a nation have brought joy to a city still torn apart by grief.

And as they prepare to return to Paris in their thousands today, they have been saluted for lifting the mood of its people.

This week, the country's main sports paper, L'Equipe, ran a two-page feature praising the role of the Irish fans North and South.

A bar owner told the paper: "Paris has been morose since the attacks. It does us good to see such happy people."

Place de la République is dominated by the 9.5-metre bronze statue of Marianne, the female symbol of the French Republic.

In November, the monument became a sea of flowers and tributes to the 130 victims of the terror attacks.

Seven months on, a handful of photographs and messages remain.

One shows a young girl, Lola, aged just 17, and the words "assassinated at the Bataclan".

The nightclub, a short walk from the busy square, was the scene of the worst carnage.

The November 13 attacks came 10 months after gunmen shot dead 12 people at the Paris office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Robert McLiam Wilson, originally from Belfast, joined the magazine in the wake of the shooting, and he has seen at first-hand the dark mood in the city. But for him, our fans have helped to lift the people's spirits.

"It is the feelgood story of the tournament," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"French news for two years now has been relentlessly grim - it is like a really black sky above you all the time. It is just unceasing bad news. It has been as grim as hell."

Northern Ireland fans were in Paris for Tuesday's game at the Parc des Princes.

The Republic played Sweden at the Stade de France here last Monday.

Supporters have come together at the giant fanzone, and in the city's bars and restaurants. There has not been a single report of trouble.

Mr McLiam Wilson said the warm relations between the two sets of supporters were remarkable.

"I did a thing on the radio yesterday pointing out what they (Parisians) maybe hadn't noticed," he added.

"They were up-to-date in the 1990s on Ireland-Northern Ireland, but maybe less now.

"And they hadn't quite noticed the remarkable thing of the two sets of fans mixing. It is really adding to the bonhomie - there isn't going to be any bother, nobody has to worry."

The L'Equipe piece read: "The entire population of France has been captivated by the humour, partying and trouble-free behaviour of both sets of supporters."

Gregoire Fleurot, the journalist who wrote the article, explained that the Irish fans have been an antidote to the violence that marred other matches.

"We had talked a lot about the problems of violence and hooliganism in the first few days of the Euros," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"And we thought, 'Okay, that's not the whole story'.

"Very quickly it became clear that the Irish fans, both from the North and the South, had impressed everyone.

"They have made a very, very good impression on everybody in France.

"In every town they have played, there have been so many stories, and also the nice videos we have seen on the internet."

Mr Fleurot said he had been told that our fans were helping bring back a sense of normality to Paris.

"There was a small bar owner near the Moulin Rouge in Paris. I didn't go to ask her about the terrorist attack but she told me that it was so nice to see these people, that they come here happy and they bring joy," he added.

"In normal times Paris is not always the happiest of places, and after the attacks the atmosphere was a bit gloomy.

"She said it was very heart-warming to see these happy people coming and having fun and drinking a lot of beer, which was good for her business."

Back at Place de la République, a French man, struggling to find the right words in English, said: "It is something that we haven't seen. Paris has been too quiet. There has been great sadness. It is nice to see happiness again."

The fans have impressed with their conduct throughout the European Championships. In Lyon, a group from Northern Ireland held a whip-round for a restaurant after accidentally breaking a window as they played football.

Michael Boyd, from the Irish Football Association, has attended all of Northern Ireland's games as a supporter.

He said the experience has been "awesome".

"All the games were fantastic, family-friendly celebrations," he added.

"Not just at the games, but everywhere. It was just one big party and the Green and White Army were just great ambassadors for us all in Northern Ireland.

"I saw a fan called Graham Parkinson give a Ukrainian family free tickets, and the little boy's smile was incredible.

"In Paris I travelled with my three older brothers, and it was just fantastic to share that game with them. That is a memory I will never forget.

"This means so much more than just football to us all.

"It's about celebrating our identify and letting the world know what we have always known - that Northern Ireland people are great."

Belfast Telegraph

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