Strikes by public sector workers and students continued to cause disruptions across France on Tuesday, with sporadic outbursts of violence punctuating the final day before the expected vote in the Senate on President Nicolas Sarkozy's pension reform bill.
The Interior Ministry reported that 1.1 million people had demonstrated in cities across the country on Tuesday, with 67,000 in Paris. CGT, France's biggest union, estimated the turnout in Paris at 330,000, and 3.5 million people nationwide.
In the Paris suburbs, scorched and overturned cars littered the streets as police used tear gas to break up protesters. A fire gutted a high school overnight in Le Mans, in western France, while protesters in the southern city of Lyon smashed shop and bank windows and looted shops.
The Interior Ministry said that 1,158 rioters had been arrested at demonstrations since the start of the week, 163 of them on Tuesday morning.
Speaking from the seaside town of Deauville, where he was meeting with the leaders of Russia and Germany, Sarkozy appealed to demonstrators to show restraint.
"In a democracy, everyone can express themselves but you have to do so without violence or excesses," Sarkozy said.
Francois Chereque, the head of the CFDT union, also called for non-violent protests ahead of a march in central Paris.
"I am making a clear and simple appeal today ... Let's keep this peaceful," he said.
France comes to a standstill
With all 12 French oil refineries shut down by strikes and truckers blocking roads, Sarkozy has said his cabinet would draw up a plan to stop France from grinding to a halt.
"I will hold a meeting as soon as I return to Paris to unblock a certain number of situations, because there are people who want to work and who must not be deprived of petrol," he said.
The government said it has dipped into a 30-day reserve stock held by the oil industry, though said it had not yet tapped into the 60-day strategic fuel reserve it maintains for wartime emergencies. The International Energy Agency said France had "sufficient stocks" to deal with the situation.
About half of French train services were cut on Tuesday, and 30-50 percent of flights were grounded. However, the Paris metro and Eurostar services were said to be running on close to a normal schedule.
Oil giant Total said a quarter of its 4,000 service stations had experienced shortages after fuel depot blockades and the week-long strikes at refineries. Around one in five stations nationwide has been hit by shortages, according to a tally by French news agency AFP.
Majority of French citizens support the protests
Unions want to force Sarkozy to abandon a bill to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60, and full retirement from 65 to 67. The government says the reforms are necessary to curb pension deficits and protect France's credit rating.
Following the trilateral summit in Deauville, German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered her support for Sarkozy's reforms.
"The truth is, people are living longer," Merkel told broadcaster France 2. "And if we want to guarantee a reasonable pension, then the fact that people are living longer must lead to a longer working life."
The Senate is to vote on the bill on Wednesday, after which it needs a last vote by a parliamentary committee, where Sarkozy's center-right government enjoys a comfortable majority.
A majority of French people support the protests, with a poll published on Monday in the daily Le Parisien showing 71 percent against the proposed reforms.
Unions are demanding negotiations on the pension plan. They have vowed to carry on with the protests, even if the legislation is passed.
Author: Martin Kuebler (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Chuck Penfold