France braces for hooligans, more strikes at Euro 2016
A tense France was finally able to party after winning the opening match against Romania and avoiding major hiccups as ongoing industrial unrest failed to disrupt transport to the Stade de France.
However a strike by a quarter of Air France’s pilots threatened to have an impact on fans travelling to matches, and trains continued to face delays on the 11th day of a rail strike.
While France is on high alert for terror attacks it is old-fashioned hooligans who have proved the first test for security forces, with two nights of clashes in Marseille.
Even before England and Russia hit the field, hundreds of drunk and bare-chested supporters clashed with each other and police, hurling bottles and insults outside bars in the Vieux Port district.
Police fired tear gas and ordered bars and restaurants on the quay to close. Seven fans were arrested.
Marseille is determined to avoid a repeat of events during the 1998 World Cup when English hooligans clashed with Tunisia supporters in the Mediterranean city.
That violence was among the worst ever at a major football tournament.
France still holding breath
The European football championship arrived in a glum France desperate for some good news after last year’s terror attacks were followed by months of industrial unrest, political turmoil and floods.
A much-needed 2-1 win against Romania, which came when Dimitri Payet fired in a long-range effort in the final minutes of the match, broke the tension with supporters in the stadium and bars around the city erupting into cheers.
Le Parisien newspaper said more success for the French team could help the country.
“Even if France is breathing easier this morning, it is still holding its breath, hoping for victory in this Euro, to ward off the threat of attacks, for a stop to the social conflicts. Finally,” it said in an editorial.
Euro 2016 comes seven months after November attacks by Islamic State jihadists and suicide bombers in Paris left 130 people dead.
While 80,000 football fans cheerfully submitted to heavy security to enter the Stade de France, fears of an attack have dampened enthusiasm and a massive Paris fan zone under the Eiffel Tower was only half-full, according to police.
Those who did go out were unperturbed.
“There is a lot of security here, but it’s OK,” said 20-year-old Ruairi Scott from Belfast, as he downed pints of beer.
“I was a little worried before we came here, but not anymore. I feel safe.”
But German student Julia Settgast, 28, said she was too jittery to go out and watch the match.
“In Germany I would watch the matches in bars or at a public viewing, but in France… I am afraid of terrorism. I would have a bad feeling if I were going to the fan zone with so many people,” she said.
The tournament is expected to attract around two million foreign visitors for the matches at 10 venues around the country, posing a major security challenge.
Some 90,000 police and private security guards are being deployed to protect players and supporters, including 13,000 in the capital alone, where soldiers could be seen patrolling with sub-machine guns.
Unions reject ‘blackmail’
President Francois Hollande hailed the “smooth” start to the tournament on Friday, despite numerous strikes over pay, conditions and government reforms to labour law.
However the industrial action is far from over.
Air France pilots began a four-day stoppage on Saturday.
While the company’s chief executive Frederic Gagey has promised that more than 80 percent of flights would operate, he has not ruled out “cancellations and last-minute delays”.
“We don’t know how we’ll get home,” said Emilie Riquier, a 35-year-old fan who had travelled to Paris from the southern city of Nice for the opening game.
The head of the CGT union Philippe Martinez, who is spearheading opposition to the labour market reforms being pushed by the government, has vowed not to be “blackmailed with the Euro” and said strike action would continue.
Rail operator SNCF had voted to continue its walkout throughout the weekend as negotiations remain blocked and rubbish collectors and incineration plants would remain on strike until Tuesday.
While Paris and Marseille scrambled to clear uncollected rubbish, there were still stinking piles on pavements in some districts.