France sees further protests


Sporadic violence returned to French streets today as hundreds of thousands of workers and students took part in a national day of protest over President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to reform the country's pension system.

President Sarkozy appealed to demonstrators to show restraint as protesters in the southern city of Lyon set fire to cars and litter bins, used cafe chairs to smash shop and bank windows, and looted shops.

Police used tear gas to break up protesters in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, and cars were burnt or overturned in the suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie, French media reported.

"The street has power and it can be more powerful than the government," Olivier Besancenot, prominent Trotskyist leader of the New Anticapitalist Party, said on Radio Monte Carlo.

Petrol and diesel shortages hurt motorists as refinery strikes went into an eighth day, although Prime Minister Francois Fillon told parliament that fuel distribution should be back to normal within four or five days after measures to unblock supplies.

But the street scuffles, coming on the back of sporadic violence on Monday, were the main worry for authorities.

"I appeal to the responsibility of all those involved to make sure things don't breach certain limits," Sarkozy said in the northern seaside resort of Deauville, where he was meeting his German and Russian counterparts for talks.

Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie promised to crack down on vandalism in the protests, telling Europe 1 radio: "The right to demonstrate does not mean the right to smash things up."

Some 300 high school students have barricaded Paris's central Place de la Republique and Bastille squares.

Radio stations reported clashes outside a school in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, where police charged hooded youths throwing stones at them and dispersed the group with tear gas.

Roughly half of French train services were cut and 30-50 per cent of flights were grounded, but the Paris metro and Eurostar services were running normally.

Total said a quarter of its 4,000 service stations in France were suffering shortages - the result of a week-long strikes at refineries, fuel depot blockades and an unrelated oil port strike.

Hundreds of other stations were also hit, though a spokesman for Exxon Mobil Corp said deliveries from France's three months' worth of strategic stocks were refilling some pumps.

"I filled up for the week on Friday but my colleague is out of fuel, he can't work, he doesn't know what to do," said Marques Vasco (52), delivering a truck of beer to a Paris cafe.

Tuesday is the sixth day of nationwide strikes and protests against pension reform since June, and a last-ditch challenge to Sarkozy before a final Senate vote this week on the bill.

Germany voted in 2007 to lift its retirement age to 63 from 62 by 2029 and many other European countries have similarly increased retirement ages, or plan to.

Opinion polls show a majority of French resent the plan to raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively, and feel they are being punished unfairly for a failure in France's cherished social security system.

The unions - which crushed pension and labour reforms in 1995 and 2006 with long-running protests - say they want the bill scrapped and a say in discussing a pension overhaul.

So far the transport strikes have not been severe enough to paralyse France, however, the refinery strikes are a serious threat. As fuel depots dry up, France will become increasingly dependent on strategic reserves which need to be accessed and transported across the country.

Mr Sarkozy hopes the Senate will approve his bill by Friday after which it just needs a last vote by a joint parliamentary committee. Unions have vowed to keep protesting regardless.