PARIS: French protestors blocked key sites and clashed with police Thursday as unions called for further mass nationwide protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's bid to raise the retirement age.
With no fuel left in more than a quarter of petrol pumps, police are playing what unions dubbed a game of cat and mouse with protestors at refineries and fuel depots in a bid to prevent the country grinding to a halt.
"By taking the French economy, businesses and daily life hostage, you will destroy jobs," Sarkozy said, accusing trade union leaders of undermining France's fragile economic recovery.
"We can't be the only country in the world where, when there's a reform, a minority wants to block everyone else. That's not possible. That's not democracy," he declared, vowing tough action against rioters.
But the head of the powerful CGT union Bernard Thibault said that, faced with government "intransigence", there was "no reason to stop these protests" and "we recommend further action from next week."
"We have to continue with the most massive actions possible," he told RMC radio. Unions are to meet in the afternoon to decide on holding further mass rallies, possibly on Tuesday, a week after the last protest.
More than a million people took to the streets then, the sixth day of action since September, to protest the unpopular plan to raise minimum retirement from 60 to 62 and full pension payments from 65 to 67.
Workers in key sectors have been on strike for more than a week to protest the reform, which the government says is essential to reduce France's public deficit. Unions and political opponents say it penalises workers.
Youths have been fighting running battles with riot police in several cities, and on Thursday a schoolgirl was taken to hospital during clashes with police outside a high school in the central city of Poitiers.
Police in Lyon fired tear gas when a group of around 200 high school students tried to join a demonstration by CGT unionists. Students throw objects at riot police and plain clothes officers who tried to keep the groups apart.
Five youths were arrested in Nice after stones were thrown at police during a demonstration outside a high school.
Police have arrested children as young as 10 at the demonstrations, some of whom have been tried in juvenile courts.
Spontaneous mass demonstrations have started to spring up around the country, with at least 8,000 people taking to the streets of the southern city of Toulouse on Thursday. Unions put the figure at 35,000.
At least 4,000 high school students marched through downtown Paris, with student union leaders vowing to continue protesting despite half-term holidays which start on Friday.
Between 3,500 and 5,000 students took to the streets of the southwestern city of Bordeaux, carrying banners such as: "We would have burnt this reform but there's no petrol left."
Activists blocked access to Marseille airport for several hours before being cleared by police, causing tailbacks of several kilometres (miles).
Troops have also been sent in to clear rubbish from the streets of the Mediterranean port where collectors are on strike, while a similar strike in Toulouse intensified on Thursday, with workers blocking access to dumps.
The country's 12 oil refineries have been closed down by strikes, and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said 14 of 219 fuel depots were currently blocked by protestors despite Sarkozy ordering police to keep fuel flowing.
Road transport federation FNTR said its members were struggling, and that even fuel trucks would soon be off the roads because of a lack of diesel in their own tanks unless, like emergency vehicles, they were given priority.
"If there's no decision... in terms of giving priority to utility vehicles, our vehicles will no longer be able to deliver fuel and we're heading for disaster," the FNTR's Jean-Paul Deneuville said.
Transport minister Jean-Louis Borloo told the Senate that 2,790 petrol stations had run out of fuel, out of 12,300 nationwide, down from 3,190 on Wednesday.
Three-quarters of express TGV trains were running in and out of Paris, although only half of provincial trains were operating.
The pension law has been passed by the National Assembly and is slowly working its way through the Senate, which could pass it on Friday.