Saturday 3 December 2016

Daniel McDonnell: Joy of victory a distraction from chaos

Travelling Irish fans will arrive into country that badly needed the relief of a successful opening night

Published 11/06/2016 | 02:30

France’s Olivier Giroud is beaten in the air by Romania’s Razvan Rat during last night’s opening game of Euro 2016 at Stade de France Picture: Getty
France’s Olivier Giroud is beaten in the air by Romania’s Razvan Rat during last night’s opening game of Euro 2016 at Stade de France Picture: Getty

For the French people, the beginning of the football was a welcome distraction from the chaos that has threatened to depict Euro 2016 as the story of a troubled society.

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The plan was for Didier Deschamps' side to lift the mood and last night's dramatic last-gasp win over Romania succeeded in ticking that box.

Dimitri Payet's heroics will have put a smile on stressed faces trying to cope with the logistical nightmares presented by transport strikes as the competition really kicks into gear this weekend.

The Irish droves landing in Paris today ahead of Monday's date with Sweden are entering an environment where the authorities are battling serious complications.

Spectre

Discussion of the terror threat, the spectre that hung over this competition since last November's attacks in Paris, has largely been replaced by concerns about the impact of industrial action on rail and air passengers.

Yesterday morning's 'Le Figaro' carried a front page editorial which argued that the country was being held hostage by trade unionists. It was in keeping with the exasperated tone of government officials.

"They're spoiling the party," said the sports minister, Patrick Kanner, in a radio interview. "They're spoiling the image of France."

The root cause of the difficulty is proposals from French President Francois Hollande which are essentially intended to loosen labour rules on employment conditions such as hiring and firing and other HR matters.

Staff in SNCF, the state owned rail company, are resisting changes which would bring them in line with the conditions in private companies. In a separate dispute, Air France pilots are angry with their pay.

The net result is that train drivers on the main lines servicing Stade de France went on strike on the eve of the tournament, although the situation improved in the run-up to the 9.0 start with one of the two RER (commuter rail) services to Saint Denis fully operational.

However, it was a grim day for punters attempting to travel by train around the country. About half of regional trains and 20 per cent of high-speed trains did not make their scheduled journeys.

Northern Ireland followers booked for trips to Nice, the venue for their Sunday showdown with Poland, were amongst those left searching for a Plan B.

Today, Air France pilots are due to start action which will conclude on Tuesday. Passengers will be informed by text message if their flight is going ahead or not.

CEO Frederic Gagey said that between 70pc and 80pc 'medium and long haul' flights would be guaranteed but massive disruption was inevitable. UEFA are sufficiently worried to have asked the airline to ensure that referees travelling to matches will be accommodated.

Internal flights are unlikely to have too much impact on the Irish hordes moving between Paris, Bordeaux and Lille, but the cancellations of trains and the knock-on effect on traffic will result in strife.

The uncertainty has redefined the boundaries of good news story; an improved stench around the capital due to a belated bin collection was flagged as progress.

During the week, the main waste treatment facilities were picketed by unhappy workers and stacks of rubbish gathered in piles.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo promised they would all be collected by nightfall, with the humid weather increasing the unpleasantness.

Even Baptiste Talbot, the head of the CGT public workers union, respected that some understanding was required in this department. "We want to maintain pressure," he said. "But we are sensitive to sanitary issues."

With stories like this, it's hardly surprising that tourism chiefs fear that France's image will be forever tainted.

"It's just catastrophic," said Jean Pierre-Mas, the leader of the national body for travel agents.

"The international media are showing Paris in flames and France in permanent social conflict. And the foreigners who see the bins outside the Cafe de Flore will think the whole country's like this!"

Jacques Lambert, the head of the organising committee, conceded that the 'image given is not one we wanted.'

He'd acknowledged on Wednesday that the Paris attacks eight months ago had dramatically altered the script; he didn't envisage domestic arguments becoming so problematic.

Much as reports of English fans immersed in bother in Marseille were an unfortunate throwback, the reality is that the security side of Matchday 1 passed smoothly.

Supporters heeded the warnings to travel early, and the venue was almost packed to capacity 30 minutes before kick-off.

They came through two security checkpoints to do so and, while long queues were visible from early evening, the atmosphere was serene.

Thorough checks of the venue were ongoing throughout the day.

Six hours before the action got under way, police entered the press room to order a brief evacuation. "It's nothing to be worried about," explained one volunteer. "They're just checking for explosives."

In a different setting, even a routine check would have constituted a massive news story, yet this is just going to be the norm for Euro 2016. The sniffer dogs found nothing and everyone returned to their seats.

Edginess over the smallest thing is understandable.

Cordoned

Twenty-four hours earlier, a section of the fanzone in the city centre was temporary cordoned off because of an unattended bag. A similar scene unfolded in a metro station in the early afternoon. False alarms are frequent.

Inside the ground, the main source of activity around the concourse as the clock counted down was photographers taking snaps of untroubled armed guards.

Otherwise, it was standard big match fare. Fans of both nations mingled happily, floating between the stalls and sipping on their plastic glasses of Carlsberg and Tourtel.

After a stunning rendition of 'La Marseillaise', the stage was cleared for a game that brought a nicer kind of tension and eventually lifted native spirits.

It might even have made the awkward journey home that little bit more tolerable.

The next gig in Saint Denis will shape Ireland's adventure. Getting there will require patience but the roar which greeted Payet's extraordinary winner proved - as if there was any doubt - that the occasion will be worth it.

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