Friday

1st Mar 2024

Analysis

Nervous France opens Euro 2016 games

  • Around 55,000 police and military will secure the 51 games of the championship (Photo: Reuters)

"You will walk in our rubbish. Your train risks staying at the platform. Watch out terrorists. Welcome to France, dear tourist. And sorry."

This tweet by one of the main morning radio show hosts catches the mood in France as the country kicks off what was supposed to be a feel-good event - the Euro 2016 football championship.

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  • Hollande (c) with French national team manager Didir Deschamps (l) and player Olivier Giroux (r). A win would boost confidence in the country. (Photo: Elysee.fr)

From Friday (10 June) to 10 July, France is hosting 24 national teams, 51 matches and between 7 million and 8 million supporters and visitors.

But the country, which is still recovering from severe floods that could cost up to €1.4 billion, has been crippled by strikes in the railway, oil refinery and wider energy sectors.

The latest of them is by Paris binmen. Piles of rubbish can be seen and smelt on the streets of the capital and in some places people have reported rats running around the streets.

Next week, Air France pilots are planning a strike to protest against a reform of the company, just as supporters will fly in for the first matches by their teams.

Apart from the pilots, all the strikes are against a reform of the labour market, which has triggered mass demonstrations in cities across the country in the last few months.

Clashes between police and masked activists often followed. Cases of police violence have been filmed. One protester lost an eye after being shot with an electroshock weapon and another one is in a coma.

Police officers were also targeted by some protesters and a police car in Paris was set ablaze while officers were still inside.

But from Friday, police will be focused on the security around the Euro championship. Authorities said that 45,000 officers will be deployed, along with 10,000 soldiers and about 13,000 private security employees.

The massive security presence follows last year's terrorist attacks in Paris and warnings from different intelligence services that stadiums, supporters and even the teams themselves could be targeted.

Last month, Europol's chief said that Euro 2016 was "an attractive target for terrorists" and the head of French intelligence warned of "a terror campaign characterised by leaving explosive devices in places where large crowds gather”.

More recently French and German police said they also feared attacks by drones spilling toxic substances above the crowds, or even just water or flour to create panic and potentially deadly stampedes

French authorities have decided not to cancel the whole Euro or to change their plans, including for the so-called fan zones where thousands of people will gather to watch the games on giant screens. Many experts say these zones would be an easy target for terrorists.

'Not impressed by threat'

"I decided that we had not only to maintain the competition, keep the fan zones and make sure that it is a European celebration, a popular festival, a sport festival," president Francois Hollande said on Sunday.

He said that "the threat exists" but that one "should ever let himself be impressed" by it.

For Hollande and his government, organising the Euro as planned is first of all a demonstration that life is back to normal.

It is also a demonstration that the state, in its traditional dimensions - authority and security - is still working after strikes, blockades of refineries and clashes left an impression of a weak state and a weak government unable to maintain law and order, even during a state of emergency.

The emergency measure, which was imposed during the 13 November attacks, has been extended until the end of July, after the Euro and the cycling Tour de France.

"The state must do its duty. And it will, it will take all the measures that are necessary," Hollande said on Thursday.

The government also counts on the football competition - a popular distraction and an opportunity to boost the economy in times of crises - to win over opposition to the labour market reform.

Despite watering down the labour bill, which makes lay-offs and extension of working hours easier, prime minister Manuel Valls, a politician who has built his political career on a strongman image, wants to win the fight he began against protesters.

He said that the CGT, France's most influential trade union, was "taking hostage consumers and [France's] economy" and that it was "not the CGT that rules the roost in France".

Weak president

For Hollande, a Euro that goes well and the end of the protests could be a boost in his not-yet-announced bid for reelection next year. He currently trails in opinion polls with 14 percent of voting intentions but he still hopes that his social and economic policies will pay off.

In Europe, "Hollande is considered as domestically weak, he's not considered as a leader who can revolutionise France," Vivien Pertusot, the head of the French think-tank Ifri's Brussels office, told EUobserver.

With EU sanctions looming if France doesn't reduce its deficit under 3 percent of GDP next year, Hollande has little choice but to continue reforms.

"Everyone understand it is difficult to do reforms in France but the argument is getting more and more fragile because everybody else has done reforms", Pertusot noted.

As the Euro championship starts, Hollande, Valls and some economists hope that the winners will be Les Bleus, the national team.

A win would create a feel-good atmosphere in the country and boost collective confidence and the economy, as it did when France won the World Cup at home in 1998.

But even the enthusiasm around the team has been marred by controversies about the lack of players of Arab origins. Former player Eric Cantona has accused national team manager Didier Deschamps of racism.

The controversy illustrated another French illness - the alienation of young people with an immigrant background and the mistrust towards immigrants and Muslims by a large part of society.

Multiracial team

The multiracial national team, which has a large group of black players, has been criticised by far-right politicians. And even a win on 10 July would not reduce racial tensions and support for the far-right National Front (FN).

FN leader Marine Le Pen is leading all opinion polls a year ahead of the presidential election, with almost 30 percent of voting intentions.

Many politicians and experts believe she would lose in the second round. But in Brussels, Pertusot said, "the question about France is how to prevent Marine Le Pen from being elected".

Winning the Euro would probably not change the political situation in France. But after months of dramas and tensions, it would still be a nice summer gift for the elites.

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