Paris (AFP) – A French ruling party member of parliament was forced into an embarrassing climbdown Friday after suggesting that construction for the football World Cup was no more dangerous to workers’ lives than that of Paris landmark the Eiffel Tower 135 years ago.
The French government has come under fire for signing a deal with Doha to provide security for the Cup, dispatching 220 experts including special forces, anti-drone troops, bomb disposal units and explosives search teams.
Opposition deputies reacted angrily to the agreement, with some calling air-conditioned stadiums an “ecological scandal”, and others saying that workers employed for the construction of World Cup infrastructure — mostly foreign — were treated “practically like slaves”.
Asked about the outcry on French radio Karl Olive, a deputy for President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, called the criticism “muddled”, and unexpectedly brought the world-famous Eiffel Tower into the debate.
“If you want to go there, then you should remember that more than 300 people died building the Eiffel Tower,” he told the France Info broadcaster early Friday.
Within hours, however, he backpedalled, admitting on Twitter that the “300 people I mentioned (370 exactly) did not die during the construction of the Eiffel Tower”.
According to the Eiffel Tower’s operators there were “no injuries or deaths” during the two years, two months and five days of its construction between 1887 and 1889.
Experts on the Eiffel Tower believe that around 370 people have died since the Tower was built, mostly due to suicides and accidents at the famous edifice.
“That was a bad example,” Olive acknowledged. “I am sorry.”
But the apology did little to stem outrage over his remarks, especially from the left.
“This is shameful,” fumed Thomas Portes, a deputy for the far-left France Unbowed party, saying that Olive had “defended Qatar with false figures and a mind-blowing comparison with the Eiffel Tower”.
Portes added: “This World Cup is being built on a pile of dead bodies”.
Faced with international criticism for its treatment of workers, Doha has promised that improved conditions for foreign labourers would be a “key legacy” of the World Cup.
In addition to the treatment of foreign hires at the multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects, Qatar is also being scrutinised for its record on women’s rights and the LGBT+ community.
Efforts to improve conditions will be extended to the hospitality and other sectors that also depend on foreign workers, organising committee chief spokesperson Fatma Al-Nuaimi told AFP in May.
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