Football: Hooligan, moi? OK, guv, a fair cop

ANDY MARTIN At Large In France: Toulouse
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BRITISH FANS in Toulouse continue to do terrible things to the French language ("cherches tickets" reads one sign being brandished around town, "cherchez femme" another), rampaging all over the most elementary rules of grammar with apparent impunity. Meanwhile, the mystery of my missing denim jacket took a surprising new twist yesterday when an England supporter was spotted wearing a denim jacket bearing a prima facie resemblance to the stolen garment. To be precise, I spotted him. Since the French police were not giving the matter top priority, I had to take the law into my own hands and follow the suspect at a safe distance.

He was a tough-looking customer, wiry, unshaven (except for his head), with the trademark portable phone to stay in touch with his cohorts, and whistling "Vindaloo". An obvious thug. Category C written all over him. Plus he was with a bunch of beery mates, blocking the traffic and looking for trouble.

I was nearly forced to revise my dim view of the lackadaisical attitude of the French police when I saw a dozen or so CRS riot-control specialists move in and arrest them. It was only when I got closer that I realised: they weren't arresting them - they were shaking hands with them. The plot was thickening.

The England "fans" were, I discovered, none other than "spotters" (or, as the French much more grandly call them, "physiognomists of Scotland Yard"). I had spotted a spotter. Although hopelessly outnumbered, I put to them the Hoddle agent provocateur theory, that the police had shrewdly engineered things so that they could pitch in and start arresting a few people. "Us?" replied one of the spotters, a heavy dude with a floppy moustache and an outrageously shiny yellow shirt. "It's you - you're the ones who do it - the media mob. You guys exacerbate everything. There's more cameramen and sound recordists in the street than anyone else. And whenever you turn up, there's always trouble."

After the initial naive pointing of the finger at drunken fans, the ingenious idea that it is journalists who are the real troublemakers has caught on in France, inducing a state of collective hysteria and paranoia. At the Mexico training camp, for example, a Mexican photographer, Simon Jose Luis Rodriguez, was roughed up by bouncers and kicked out after being mistaken for a South Korean spy, on account of his "Asiatic features". In Lens, similarly, a Brazilian reporter was hospitalised.

There is a curious parallel between the Evenements of 1968 and the World Cup of 1998. Guy Debord's recently re-published Societe du spectacle, which argued that we were suffering from a lack of reality and that everything was a stunt, an illusion, conjured up by a sinister conspiracy of capitalistic and political forces, provided a manual for the 1968 pseudo-revolution. If there were no real events, then we might as well stage one - a happening, a party with barricades and Molotov cocktails. Ironically, the whole thing turned out to be a great non-event that changed nothing. It is possible that the World Cup will do more to change the world (eg in Iran).

The Parisian sociologist Jean Baudrillard is not the only one to carry on the Debord tradition and represent everything as the invention of the media. Now every passing nutter without a CSE to his name is a post-modernist, convinced that the latest mayhem is nothing other than an exercise in the hyper-real. Or, in other words, it is all the fault of the media for making it up. I saw a cameraman set upon by a group of hostiles in the street in Toulouse. "Oi, you. You're scum, you are," growled one of the gang, who had recently been holding hands across the boulevard and lying in front of buses while singing "Rule Britannia". "We're just here to have a bit of fun, and you make us out as hooligans. I ought to do you for that!"

It was only the fact that the cameraman happened to be standing next to a bus packed with CRS that stopped him being duly done. There were other cases around town where the journalists were not so conveniently positioned and found themselves the victims of instant street censorship, and had their gear and faces smashed. I was coward enough to stuff my pen in my pocket and replace it with a can of Heineken, which I toted about by way of cover. "What me? Nah, I'm not a journalist, I'm a hooligan." "Oh, that's all right then."

The police have a bit of postmodern tendency as well, of course. They have this habit of not only asking questions but of coming up with convenient answers. I ought to learn this trick. In reality, what the big heavy Scotland Yard physiognomist said, as he stood up well to my feeble interrogation, was, "you're a hopeless bloody journalist, you are, you're no good at interviewing anyone." What I should have had him saying was more along the lines of "OK, guv'nor, we did it. You've got us bang to rights this time and no mistake. I stole your denim jacket, I did, and please take 37 similar cases into consideration."