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NEWS

Olympics-Flame arrives in Marseille amid tight security

Olympics-Flame arrives in Marseille amid tight security

By Clotaire Achi and Julien Pretot

MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) – The Olympic flame landed on French soil amid tight security on Wednesday, firing the starting gun on a summer extravaganza of sport that President Emmanuel Macron hopes will showcase the splendours of France and burnish his legacy.

The flame arrived in Marseille, a port city in southern France founded by Greek merchants, after a 12-day trip from Greece onboard the Belem, a 128-year-old three-masted tall ship that once transported sugar from France’s colonies in the West Indies to the metropole.

The torch was brought to land by Florent Manaudou, France’s 2012 Olympic men’s 50 metres freestyle swimming champion, who handed it to Paralympic athlete Nantenin Keita, a 400 metres gold medallist at the Rio Games in 2016.

She then passed it on to Marseille-born rapper Jul, who lit the cauldron in front of an ecstatic crowd estimated at 150,000.

Earlier a flotilla of pleasure boats had welcomed the Belem to French shores.

“It marks the end of preparations, the Games arrive in the life of the French people. The flame is here, we can be proud,” Macron said.

Some 7,000 law enforcement officers including snipers and dog units secured Marseille’s Old Port, a stress test for the Paris 2024 organisers with France on its highest state of security alert against a complex geopolitical backdrop.

“There’s a huge security issue at stake. We will be ready. We will be on alert until the last second,” Macron said.

“It’s an unprecedented level of security,” Interior minister Gerald Darmanin said. “Life goes on in Marseille but under great security.”

From Marseille, the torch will continue on an 11-week odyssey that will see it criss-cross France and visit French overseas territories in the Caribbean as well as the Indian and Pacific oceans.

In all it will be carried by some 10,000 torchbearers before reaching Paris on July 26 for the Games’ opening ceremony.

Instead of a traditional opening ceremony, held in a stadium, France has planned a ritzy river parade along a six-kilometre stretch of the Seine, ending at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

SOUTHERN CHARM

Sun-baked Marseille, France’s second city, provides a different spectacle to the formal elegance of Paris and large crowds gathered around the Old Port to watch.

“It was the obvious choice,” Tony Estanguet, the president of the Paris 2024 organising committee, said of Marseille, which was founded around 600 BC by Greek settlers from Phocea.

Despite a history of gang crime and poverty, its turquoise creeks and Mediterranean accents encapsulate the French southern charms that have beguiled artists and movie stars for generations.

Sports competitions have long offered nations the opportunity to exert soft power and advance their geopolitical goals. This week Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced support for Macron’s call for a global truce during the Paris 2024 Games.

Suspending armed conflicts under an “Olympic truce” is a longstanding tradition. French officials hope Xi’s endorsement is a sign that he could use his influence to persuade Russia to honour a truce in Ukraine when President Vladimir Putin travels to China later this month.

Paris itself has come to take an increasingly important role in France’s diplomatic and commercial strategies.

Last year, Pharrell Williams staged his debut menswear collection for Louis Vuitton along Paris’ Pont Neuf bridge, with large crowds gathered along the banks of the Seine for a glimpse of his celebrity audience.

 

(Reporting by Reuters TV, Writing by Julien Pretot; Editing by Richard Lough, Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis)

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