Violent protests in France raise questions over Euro 2016

Difficult to see how tournament can go ahead if strikes, protests and shortages continue

The Euro 2016 football tournament is scheduled to begin two weeks from today.

It is difficult to imagine how 51 matches in the month-long tournament can go ahead if the air, rail and metro strikes, violent demonstrations, petrol and even electricity shortages that occurred on Thursday, the eighth “day of action” against France’s labour reform law, continue.

Philippe Martinez, the leader of the communist CGT trade union which is leading the protest movement, has called for a general strike that could paralyse the country.

If judged by the chaotic and violent scenes on Thursday, prospects for the championship look bleak.


But French governments almost invariably give in to long-running protest. The tournament is expected to inject €1.3 billion into the economy, and French prestige would suffer a terrible blow if it were disrupted.

Demonstrators recalled the “victories” of 1995, when then prime minister Alain Juppé was forced to abandon pension reform, and 2006, when then prime minister Dominique de Villepin gave up the “first job contract” that was meant to combat youth unemployment. Both left office following the showdowns.

Dramatic scenes

In the most dramatic scenes on Thursday, some 200 hooded casseurs (“breakers”) hurled projectiles at CRS riot police on the Place de la Nation at the end of the march from the Place de la Bastille.

The CRS, clad in helmets and body armour, fired tear gas at the rioters. Shop and car windows were shattered. Countrywide, 77 protesters were arrested and 15 policemen were injured. The CGT said 300,000 marched in demonstrations in a half dozen cities. Police estimated half that many.

Motorists who appear to have panicked ran over militants at barricades set up by the CGT in Fos-sur-Mer and Vitrolles in southern France.

Although their strike had been announced for June 3rd-5th, French air traffic controllers joined in, forcing the cancellation of dozens of flights from the UK and Ireland to France.

Seven of France’s eight petroleum refineries remained shut last night, despite the government’s promise to “liberate” them all. The government has dipped into four months of petrol reserves, but a fifth of petrol stations remain dry and there are still petrol queues in many cities.

Sixteen of 19 nuclear power plants are also on strike.

Newspaper editors accused the CGT of blackmail, after the union prevented the publication and distribution of all daily newspapers except the communist L’Humanité on Thursday.

The CGT is particularly well-represented in printing plants, and has a monopoly over newspaper delivery vans. L’Humanité was the only title that agreed to publish a one-page opinion piece by Mr Martinez. So the CGT refused to print or deliver the others.

Mr Martinez wrote that the CGT “denounces” the government and the text of a law “guided by lowering the cost of labour and which would give less protection to employees”. The CGT “demands the right to work less, work better, and for everyone to work”, he concluded.

This week's escalating opposition to the labour law, which prime minister Manuel Valls passed by decree, has sown confusion in the ruling socialist party. Bruno Le Roux, the socialist group leader, and Christophe Sirugue, the law's rapporteur, proposed a compromise that would give the unions a say in internal company accords regarding working hours. That was rejected by Mr Valls.

Sector-wide agreements

On Thursday, the finance minister Michel Sapin suggested that article 2, which gives priority to an accord within a company to sector-wide agreements with labour unions, might be re-written. Mr Valls said immediately that article 2 could not be touched. But his statement that "modifications and ameliorations are always possible" seemed to leave wriggle room.

The government has three options in the crisis. It could stop the unrest immediately by withdrawing the law. There is a recent precedent. In March, President Francois Hollande withdrew the law on revoking the citizenship of convicted terrorists after 63 hours of parliamentary debate.

But withdrawing the law would probably end the Valls government along with the protests. Mr Valls’s insistence on the necessity of the law has been so vehement that it would be virtually impossible for him to remain in office.

There is no guarantee that opponents would accept the second option, of re-writing article 2. The CGT has insisted on the law’s total abrogation.

If the government withdraws or re-writes the law, it will be pilloried by the right, which already accuses it of gutting everything of significance in the reform.

Mr Valls's final option is to use force to impose the law, as then President Nicolas Sarkozy did with his pension reform in 2010. But a hard line would risk creating casualties, dooming Euro 2016 and alienating the French public. An Elabe poll for BFMTV showed that nearly seven in 10 French people now want to see the law withdrawn.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times