Paris: France faces a sixth day of national protests on Tuesday against President Nicolas Sarkozy`s pensions reform, with the stakes rising after youths battled riot police and filling stations ran dry.
Tuesday`s coordinated protest is the latest in a series of mounting actions against Sarkozy`s plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and follows days of strikes, skirmishes and full-blown street marches.
On Monday police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at youths who set a car on fire, smashed bus stops and hurled rocks outside a school in Nanterre, near Paris, blocked by students protesting the pensions reform.
Youths threw petrol bombs at police outside a school in another Paris suburb, Combes-la-Ville, police said. In Lyon, hooded youngsters burned at least three cars they had overturned during clashes with riot police.
The Interior Ministry said police arrested 290 rioters in various towns, and that four police officers had been injured in the scuffles.
Nearly 300 schools were disrupted by protests, officials said, and cities across France saw students take part in fresh street demonstrations, several of which saw police arresting rampaging youths.
Meanwhile, truck drivers also joined the movement that has brought millions onto the streets in recent weeks, and rubbish continued to pile up in the streets of Marseille due to a strike by collectors.
"We now need to block the economy to force the government to withdraw its plan," said Vincent Duse, a CGT union leader at an auto factory in Mulhouse.
Truckers staged go-slows on motorways near Paris and several provincial cities, drivers blocked access to goods supply depots and joined oil workers blocking fuel depots to defend their right to retire at 60.
Production at all France`s oil refineries remained shut down since last week, causing hundreds of filling stations to run dry, industry associations said.
The government announced it had activated an emergency crisis cell charged with maintaining fuel supplies.
"We will stay here as long as we can," said the CFDT`s Joseph Sieiro, one of the hundred people, most of them truckers, who turned up to block an oil terminal at Port-La-Nouvelle in southern France.
Further disruption was due on Tuesday, the sixth coordinate national action in less than two months.
Half of all flights to and from Paris Orly airport and 30 percent of flights at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and other French airports will be cancelled due to Tuesday`s strikes, aviation officials said.
The government has so far shown no sign of backing down and Sarkozy vowed on Monday that the reform will pass.
"This reform is essential. France is committed to it. France will carry it out," he told reporters.
Unions want to force Sarkozy to abandon a bill to raise the minimum retirement age to 62, which is in the final days of its journey through a Parliament in which the right-wing leader enjoys a comfortable majority.
Sarkozy has staked his credibility on the bill, but unions are hoping for a repeat of 1995, when Jacques Chirac`s government backed down on pension reform after a paralysing transport strike.
The government has shown no sign of backing down on the reform, currently being examined by the Senate, which on Monday pushed back the final vote until at least Thursday with hundreds of amendments still to be debated.
Most French back the current protests, with a poll published Monday in the popular Le Parisien daily showing that 71 percent of those asked expressed either support or sympathy.
"It is perfectly normal and natural that this (reform) causes worries and opposition," Sarkozy told reporters in Deauville, western France, where he was due to hold a summit with Russia and Germany.
"It is also normal and natural that a democratic government... should ensure motorists can find fuel and that there are no clashes."