Can Euro 2016 lift France out of doldrums?

Oil strikers, Prime Minister Manuel Valls and rubbish building up at the Moulin Rouge Image copyright AFP
Image caption France has endured oil disputes and petrol shortages, historic floods and now Paris is facing a waste-collection strike

Seven months after a terrorist massacre in its capital city, France raises the curtain on Friday evening on one of the world's biggest sporting events.

Two dozen national football teams and at least two million foreign visitors will be here for the Euro 2016 football championships.

But how ready is the nation to focus on "the beautiful game"?

This was meant to be France's feel-good moment. But like cherries that are always hanging just out of reach, the build-up to Euro 2016 has been interrupted by one distraction after another:

  • First it was the petrol shortages, triggered by strikes over the government's proposed changes to the Labour Law
  • Next it was rolling rail strikes - set to continue through the tournament (though most trains are now running)
  • Then there were the storms that battered the country last week and led to heavy flooding along the Loire and Seine rivers

Having got through all of that, on the eve of the championship, France is facing fresh strikes at the national airline, and rubbish left to rot in the street as bin-men join the rolling protests over labour reforms.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption French fans are expecting big things from coach Didier Deschamps (L) and talented midfielder Paul Pogba

It's a wonder people have any time left to think about whether Didier Deschamps has got the right men in his defence line-up for the French national side.

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But it's not as if football has been entirely out of the headlines either.

Last month, Eric Cantona implied that the French coach had allowed racism to colour his selection for the squad. That followed an earlier scandal that saw two of the country's top players embroiled in blackmail allegations - and consequently dropped from the Euro 2016 team.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Retired footballer Eric Cantona was criticised for suggesting that Karim Benzema (L) and Hatim Ben Arfa (R) had been left out because of their North African origins

So if the mood here ahead of kick-off has been, well, muted, perhaps it's no surprise.

But there is, of course, another reason for the rather subdued atmosphere ahead of the games.

When President Hollande arrives at the Stade de France in northern Paris tomorrow for the opening ceremony, it will be a poignant moment. Many of those watching will be remembering the night he was bundled out of the stadium during another match last November, as three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside.

It was the start of France's night of terror, in which 130 people were killed on the streets of Paris. Now, the fears of police, public and politicians as they head into the tournament hang heavy in the air.

The Euros are spread between 10 French cities, each requiring its own security plans.

One hundred thousand police, soldiers and security guards have been detailed to protect the games but, as the interior minister points out, "even 100% preparation cannot guarantee zero risk".

A leaked police document, calling for the partial closure of vast "fan-zones" set up in cities including Paris and Marseille, has been widely reported in French media.

Parisian fears

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption As a security measure the fan zones will be only outdoor sites where big screens are allowed

On the eve of the tournament, workers in Paris said they were planning to stay away from the zones, considered softer targets than the stadiums themselves.

"It's fun to have the Euros in France," said Eva, a 32-year-old jurist, "but with everything that's happening, it could create more problems than anything else. It's fun in principle, but with the strikes for example, we're not going to see a good image of France."

"Even though I'm not a big football fan, I'm excited by the ambiance," said David, a finance worker in the city.

"But the recent events are on everyone's mind and there's a lot of talk about security, so the euphoria is dampened by that. If there is a target, it will be the Euros."

Image copyright AP
Image caption When France hosted the World Cup in 1998, they won, and this time they are favourites to win the European Championship

While an attack would be devastating for the host nation, a peaceful, well-managed tournament would go a long way towards restoring a sense of security, something that has been missing here since the attacks last year.

Similarly, in terms of the social divisions and political disillusionment plaguing France, the games could turn out to be a unifying moment of national pride, or another opportunity to dissect the nation's disappointment.

Many here expect the public excitement to build as France heads into the opening game against Romania on Friday night.

Because, after all the logistical problems and all the discussion of security risks, this country is hungry for some good news, and those cherries still look sweet.

After all, the nation was divided and subdued in the days before the 1998 World Cup in France, and look how that turned out.

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