PARIS: The Euro 2016 football championships kick off in France on Friday under unprecedented security and with President Francois Hollande vowing to take decisive action to stop strikes hitting the showpiece event.
The action on the pitch starts when France face Romania in the Stade de France in Paris at 1900 GMT, but the buildup has been blighted by industrial unrest over labor reforms and fears the tournament will be the target of a terrorist attack.
As bags of uncollected rubbish piled up in the streets of the capital and train drivers threatened to disrupt services to the stadium, Hollande said he would take “all necessary measures” to ensure the smooth running of the championships.
“I will be paying close attention… and if decisions need to be made, they will be made,” Hollande said. “Public services will be provided… The whole of Europe will be watching.”
Up to 90,000 police and private security guards will protect players and supporters, just seven months after coordinated Islamic State attacks in Paris killed 130 people.
The stringent security measures got their first real test on Thursday when superstar French DJ David Guetta gave a free performance in the fan zone at the foot of the Eiffel Tower where some 80,000 spectators had to pass through two checkpoints.
The government is eager to make sure the championship goes off without a hitch, but weeks of protests and industrial action have provided a somber prelude to Europe’s four-yearly football extravaganza.
As hundreds of thousands of fans began pouring into the capital ahead of the football action, a train strike rumbled into its ninth day on Thursday, while bags of rubbish piled up on the streets.
Rail workers have threatened fresh disruption on Friday on the lines serving the Stade de France.
‘France’s pride is at stake’
Environment Minister Segolene Royal appealed to unions to end their strike disruption, warning they were endangering the image of France, which is bidding to host the 2024 Olympics.
She told iTele it was “not right for a modern country to continue being permanently disrupted.”
“France’s pride is at stake,” Royal said.
Hollande has refused to back down on the unions’ demands to withdraw the labor reforms, arguing the measures are necessary to cut stubbornly high unemployment.
Nearly 3,000 tons of waste have gone uncollected in Paris, according to the authorities, with nearly a third of refuse-collecting drivers on strike and unions blockading incineration plants.
Zahier, a waiter in a restaurant in the Latin Quarter where rubbish spilled out of bins into the narrow, cobbled streets, said the pile-up was affecting business. “Customers are looking out at the dustbins, so obviously it’s making them lose their appetite.”
Unsightly mounds of waste were also building up in the southern city of Marseille, which will host four Euro 2016 matches, including England’s high-profile clash with Russia on Saturday.
In another headache for organizers, Air France pilots have called for a four-day strike starting on Saturday, when an estimated two million foreign fans will begin arriving in earnest.
The latest round of negotiations broke down on Thursday.
But Air France chief executive Frederic Gagey promised that between 70 percent and 80 percent of flights would operate on Saturday.
As the France team arrived in Paris from their training base, authorities were taking no chances with security.
France remains a top target for the Islamic State group and warnings from the United States and Britain that the tournament could be a target have only added to the sense of nervousness.
After Thursday’s successful concert, the security focus will shift on Friday to the Stade de France, where three jihadists blew themselves up in the November 13 carnage, which also targeted a concert hall and several cafes and restaurants.
Among a host of extra security measures, a new perimeter fence has been added around the venue to allow more security searches of spectators.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Wednesday 300 people had been barred from serving in the private security teams after vetting showed they had been radicalized. AFP