England fan critical after mass Euro 2016 violence

Marseille (AFP) - An England football supporter was fighting for his life Saturday after pitched street battles in the French city of Marseille, bringing new shame on football.

French riot police used tear gas and water cannon to try to restore order as English and Russian fans brawled in a series of clashes ahead of their teams' Euro 2016 opener, leaving at least 19 injured.

Bare-chested supporters hurled bistro chairs and bottles in the Vieux-Port area, where the cobbled streets were left littered with broken glass and debris, in a third consecutive day of violence.

Hundreds of fans poured down stone steps in the streets of the Mediterranean port city, many carrying chairs.

The trouble erupted after massed ranks of fans had been drinking for hours.

One English fan was left in a critical condition, the regional police prefect Laurent Nunez said.

A police source said the man had been beaten with an iron bar "apparently around the head" and was rushed to hospital after emergency first-aid at the scene.

AFP journalists saw the man, with a heavily bloodied face, receiving treatment after apparently suffering a cardiac arrest.

At least three other people received serious injuries but their lives were not in danger, officials said.

Nunez said officers had moved in to separate groups of English and Russian fans before they were "set upon" by both sets of fans.

Before the tournament French police were on high alert for potential terror threats after the jihadist attacks in Paris in 2015, but so far it has been the old plague of hooliganism that has marred the Euros.

European football's governing body UEFA slammed the violence, which recalled notorious clashes between England and Tunisia fans in Marseille during the 1998 World Cup.

"UEFA firmly condemns the incidents in Marseille," said a UEFA spokesman. "People engaging in such violent acts have no place in football."

Fans marauded through streets throwing chairs and taunting each other, as police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse them -- as well as local youths who became involved.

- Late kick-off blamed -

Six people were arrested on Saturday, adding to seven held in the district on Friday night in similar disturbances. Police also broke up fighting involving England fans on Thursday.

England fans said the latest clashes were caused by Russians who charged at them.

"There were about 100 Russians, they just came out of nowhere, something was thrown and that started it all off," said one England supporter who asked not to be named.

Another fan, Danny Hart, 23, said the 9:00 pm (1900 GMT) kick-off time had fuelled the violence.

"I don't think it's a good idea to have scheduled the match at nine o'clock tonight. By that time everyone's going to be completely pissed (drunk)."

The England-Russia game was one of five classified as "high-risk" for hooliganism by tournament organisers and Marseille residents said the violence should have been expected.

"It's the English, what do you expect? We know what it's going to be like when they come here," said Laurent Ferrero, a pizzeria owner.

"In 1998 it was the same thing."

In Lyon, meanwhile, four French men aged between 20 and 24 were briefly detained following a drunken fight in a bar where England fans had been drinking, police said.

Witnesses said the French men attacked the England supporters. Police did not comment.

The violence has marred French joy at an otherwise smooth start to the giant tournament which has been overshadowed by months of industrial unrest and terror fears.

The host country was boosted by a 2-1 win against Romania in an opening match.

- 'Massive' union rally planned -

However months of strikes showed little sign of letting up, with Air France pilots joining rail workers, rubbish collectors and oil refinery workers in walking off the job.

The strike by a quarter of Air France's pilots meant only 83 percent of flights operated on Saturday, the company said.

The strike is set to continue until Tuesday, when unions have organised nationwide rallies to protest government labour reforms.

The European championship is also fraught with terror fears, coming seven months after November attacks by Islamic State jihadists and suicide bombers in Paris left 130 people dead.

Some 90,000 police and private security guards have been deployed to protect players and around two million foreign visitors expected for the matches at 10 venues around the country.