Les Bleus open Euro 2016 hoping to shake off the blues
By Patrick Vignal
PARIS (Reuters) - France kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against Romania on Friday with the host nation desperate for a ray of sunshine after being hit by strikes, floods and scandals in the build-up.
Protests against a labour law and torrential rain that has caused the Seine river to rise to levels not seen in decades have created a bleak backdrop to the tournament where France will start as favourites.
A state of emergency is also still in force after last November's Islamist attacks killed 130 people in Paris at several sites including the Stade de France, the venue for Friday's opening game.
As if that were not enough, France's preparations have been hampered by a string of injuries and a scandal involving striker Karim Benzema, who said last week that he was denied a chance to play in the tournament finals because of his Algerian origins.
Benzema was suspended indefinitely by the French federation (FFF) last December because of his involvement in an alleged blackmail scandal. The FFF upheld the ban in April, effectively ruling the striker out of the tournament.
His accusation of racism was widely denied, with promising forward Kingsley Coman calling it "nonsense".
His comments did, however, deepen a row about alleged racism in a national team once hailed as a model for ethnic integration after they lifted the World Cup on home soil in 1998.
Current coach Didier Deschamps captained France to that success, but 18 years later he faces a very different challenge.
It seems a formality that France will survive a group, arguably the weakest in the competition, that also features Albania and Switzerland.
"I trust my players," said Deschamps. "The first game is not decisive but it is important because it sets the tone for the whole tournament."
Romania have struggled in front of goal, but their resolute defence could make them a difficult side to break down.
The hosts, by contrast, have plenty of attacking talent with Coman, Antoine Griezmann and in-form Olivier Giroud, who struck twice in a 3-0 win over Scotland in their final warm-up game.
Deschamps' worries are in defence after centre back Raphael Varane and holding midfielder Lassana Diarra had to pull out with injuries.
Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami, who are likely to be paired in central defence against Romania, have rarely played together and showed signs of nerves when they did.
Once a defensively-minded outfit, Les Bleus will have to focus on looking for goals. If they discover their scoring touch, France could soon be in party mood again.
(Editing by Toby Davis)