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Olympic flag reaches French soil at last with Games just weeks away

The Olympic flame has landed on French soil amid tight security, 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.

May 09, 2024, updated May 09, 2024
The Belem, the three-masted sailing ship which is carrying the Olympic flame, enters the Old Port in Marseille, southern France, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. The torch was lit in Greece last month before it was officially handed to France. The Paris 2024 Olympic Games will run from July 26 to Aug.11, 2024. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

The Belem, the three-masted sailing ship which is carrying the Olympic flame, enters the Old Port in Marseille, southern France, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. The torch was lit in Greece last month before it was officially handed to France. The Paris 2024 Olympic Games will run from July 26 to Aug.11, 2024. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

The flame arrived in Marseille, the southern France port city 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.

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Some 7000 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.

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.

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