Students plan a day of protests in Paris before the Senate is to vote on the retirement measure on Thursday [AFP]

Further strikes against plans to overhaul France pensions system are expected after a night of unrest between youths and riot police in several towns.

Shops in the city of Lyon were looted as workers and students came out on the streets to protests against attempts by the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62.

In Nanterre, west of Paris, several hundred youths threw stones at police, who responded with tear gas.

More than a million protestors rallied across France on Tuesday, with public workers and students mounting pressure on the government to scrap the measures, which are designed to tackle the country's economic problems.

Hundreds of flights were cancelled on Tuesday and desperate drivers searched for fuel as oil refinery strikes and blockades emptied the pumps at nearly one-third of petrol stations.

Fuel fears

Sarkozy has vowed to guarantee public order in the face of "troublemakers." The government announced a plan to pool gasoline stocks so that dry stations can be filled.

"There are people who want to work, the immense majority, and they cannot be deprived of gasoline,"Sarkozy said.

Pension Reform

 

  Under current rules, the French can retire at 60, providing they have paid social security contributions for 40.5 years.
  Retirees are entitled to a full pension when they are 65.
  The planned reform would raise the minimum retirement age to 62 by 2018, the qualification to 41.5 years, and the pension age to 67.
  Officials say the reforms would save about $95bn.

With more than 200 protests on Tuesday, all 12 French oil refineries shut down by strikes and lorry drivers blocking roads, Sarkozy instructed the cabinet to draw up a plan to stop France grinding to a standstill.

Jean-Louis Borloo, the environment and transport minister said that "a little under 4,000 petrol stations are awaiting deliveries." There are around 12,500 filling stations in France.

French fuel and heating federation FF3C said the "extremely worrying" situation "should definitely be called a shortage", while the International Energy Agency said France has "sufficient stocks" to deal with the situation.

Authorities in Normandy requisitioned 12 petrol stations for use by rescue and emergency services, while Francois Fillon, the French prime minister, said one-third of departments or local administrations were experiencing fuel shortages.

Fillon's office said the government would ensure access to fuel depots, many of which are blocked by strikers, and that distributors would pool their fuel and trucks to help needy stations.

A new test could come as early as Thursday, when students plan a day of protests in Paris hours before the Senate is expected to vote on the retirement measure.

French unions have a long tradition of street protests, but the current strife is sensitive because it has touched the vital energy sector and is drawing the youth into the mix.

The 2006 student demonstrations forced the government to abandon a law aimed at making it easier for employers to hire and fire young people.

Today's protesters are trying to stop the government from approving a bill that the government says will prevent the pension system from going bankrupt as citizens live longer and a diminishing pool of young workers pay into the system.

Unions claim the move would erode France's near-sacred tradition of generous social benefits including long vacations, contracts that make it hard for employers to lay off workers and a state-subsidised health care system in favour of "American-style capitalism."

About 1.1 million people joined 260 protest marches across France on Tuesday, according to the interior ministry, though trade unions put the figure at three times that.

Source: Agencies