PARIS: France kicked off Euro 2016 festivities with a huge open-air concert at the Eiffel Tower Thursday, as President Francois Hollande vowed the event would run smoothly despite ongoing strikes and looming terror attack fears.
Security was tight as French DJ David Guetta performed in front of some 80,000 cheering fans at the foot of Paris’ most famous landmark, in what was seen as the first major challenge for the security services.
The party came on the eve of the opening match between France and Romania which will take place at the Stade de France, one of the venues targeted in the coordinated Islamic State attacks that killed 130 people last November.
The government is eager to make sure the championship goes off without a hitch, but the build-up to Europe’s four-yearly football extravaganza has been blighted by strikes and street protests over controversial labour reforms.
As hundreds of thousands of fans began pouring into the capital ahead of the football action Thursday, a train strike rumbled into its ninth day and bags of household rubbish were piling up on the streets of the French capital.
Rail workers have threatened fresh disruption on Friday on the lines serving the Stade de France.
Hollande warned the government was prepared to “take all necessary measures” to accommodate and transport spectators, insisting that “public services will be provided”.
“I will be paying close attention tomorrow and if decisions need to be made, they will be made,” Hollande said Thursday. “The whole of Europe will be watching.”
With fears of another attack looming large over the event, the government will deploy some 90,000 police and private guards to provide security at the tournament.
In a sign of the stringent security measures to come, music lovers arriving for Guetta’s performance were made to walk through two checkpoints before entering the open-air fan zone.
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 labour reforms, arguing the measures are necessary to cut stubbornly high unemployment.
Nearly 3,000 tonnes of waste have gone uncollected in Paris, according to the authorities, with nearly a third of rubbish truck drivers on strike and unions blockading incineration plants, preventing collections.
Zahier, a waiter in a restaurant in the Latin Quarter where rubbish spilled out of bins into the narrow, cobbled streets, said the trash 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 organisers, 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 concert the focus will shift to the Stade de France, where three Islamic State 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 for Euro 2016 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 radicalised.