|Protesters in Nice as part of a national day of mass rallies against pension reforms [AFP]
The battle over a planned overhaul of France's pension system has intensified as rolling strikes cut the fuel pipeline to Paris airports and shut down most of the country’s oil refineries.
In an attempt to pummel the government into backing down on its controversial plans to raise the retirement age, a broad alliance of unions, leftwing political parties and students are pressing ahead with a series of nationwide protests.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to join the nationwide protests on Saturday, just days ahead of the final government vote on the reforms on Wednesday. Unions are also promising a major strike on Tuesday in a final attempt to stop the legislation.
The protestors were to march from the Place de la Republique to the Bastille in Paris.
The country has already endured four straight days of strikes, squeezing fuel supplies, grounding flights, cutting rail services and closing schools and other key facilities.
Trapil, the Paris pipeline operator, told the AFP news agency that Charles de Gaulle, the country's main airport, could run out of fuel by next week, while Orly "has stocks for 17 days".
Christine Lagarde, the economy minister, urged people not to panic over petrol supplies as the country had ample stocks for now.
"We have reserves," she told France's RTL radio, adding supply problems had affected 230 petrol stations out of a total 13,000 in the country. "People mustn't panic."
Strikes during the week at French oil ports and twelve refineries put pressure on petrol and diesel supplies across the country, notably when supply was cut into the Paris region and international airports on Friday from a pipeline running south from Le Havre.
Police were able to break up blockades at three fuel depots in southern France, easing some of the pressure at petrol stations, but that has not eased fears of a fuel shortage.
"People are panic buying, we’ve seen long lines of motorists queuing at filling stations," Al Jazeera's Harry Smith, reporting from Paris, said.
Lorry drivers are heavyweights in the realm of French protest movements and are throwing their support behind the protests.
Maxime Dumont, the head of the CFDT union's lorry drivers' section, said drivers could block fuel depots, refineries and food warehouses and clog roads by driving slowly along them.
"In the transport sector we can do a bit more to help the workers. We are going to join the movement to make the government give way," Dumont said.
The reforms remain likely to pass next Wednesday, but the protest movement has become the biggest challenge yet to the increasingly unpopular presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.
Many of the protestors, including the opposition Socialist Party, acknowledge the need for some kind of reform to the retirement and pension system.
However, those opposed to the law say the government is rushing it through without enough consultation – an error that Dominique de Villepin was also accused of making in 2005, and which handicapped his role as France’s prime minister.
"Retirement reform is necessary, we’re all agreed. To do it, we need to debate, to negotiate, and above all, fairness," Martine Aubry, the Socialist leader said in an interview on France 2.
Others are more categorically against the reforms but are uniting with the diverse range of groups in the protests.
Olivier Besancenot, the charismatic leader of the "revolutionary" Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), is back in the public limelight, after months of silence following his party’s disappointing results in the regional and EU elections.
In an interview with Le Monde, he declared that "a new Mai '68 is possible," referring to the months of protests and strikes that ended Charles De Gaulles' presidency.
The government says that raising the retirement age to 62 from 60 is the only way to save the money-draining pension system and insists that people have to work longer because they are living longer.
There is also the fact that the protests are underpinned by the government's general unpopularity, and that the president’s own political capital is heavily invested in the reform.
With neither sides likely to back down, the conflict could continue to undermine the government well after the vote.
Of all the diverse groups taking part in the battle against the changes to the retirement age, young people arguably represent the biggest menace to the government.
|There are fears that Paris' airports could run out of fuel as the blockade of fuel depots continues [File: EPA]
The country’s various workers’ unions may have considerable political influence, but traditionally it’s when the country’s youth join them in protest that government reforms are brought down.
Several confrontations between students and police have turned violent in the past week. Riot police dispersed protestors on university campuses and streets in Lyon and Marseille on Friday.
More than 150 young people were detained across the country on Friday, according to the interior ministry. Both students and police have been injured, and the ministry has urged police to exercise restraint.
The use of rubber bullets by police has been suspended in Paris and the surrounding suburbs has been suspended by Michel Gaudin, the chef of police, after a 16-year-old student was seriously injured at Montreuil on Thursday.
Juliane Charton, the treasurer for the UNL, a leading student union, said the government was choosing repression over dialogue with the student movement and failing to take her generation’s concerns seriously.
"The government’s response to this mobilisation is completely irresponsible," she told Al Jazeera, referring to the outbreaks of violence between police and students.
"There is a massive mobilisation, which the government is trying to relegate to the shadows."
Members of the governing UMP party have said that the young protesters are being manipulated, but Charton said the youth mobilisation was independent and "absolutely not" linked to any political party.
The law is of real and immediate concern for young people in France, she said, and, by delaying retirement for the employed, will only increase the already high level of unemployment amongst the country's youth.
Unemployment among France young people has increased more rapidly than in the rest of the population since the start of the global financial crisis, according to the OCED. It reached 22.6 per cent in May 2010.
"There will be even less employment for young people," Charton said. "This is a fight for the right to stable employment."
The student demonstrations will continue if the senate approves the law, she said.
Not all students agree with the protests and the disruption they tend to bring, however.
"I'm a bit annoyed because during my first year we also had blockades all year long, and we don't really want it to happen again," Colin, a political science student, said.
"In my first year I did not have a class for four months, and as a result that had to give us our exam results [without sitting for them], so we don't feel like having this again."
The education ministry said 306 high schools were affected by strikes on Friday, down from 342 on Thursday.