France burns as strike descends into violence

President Sarkozy vows to crush petrol blockades crippling country

France teetered on the edge of a complex and multi-layered crisis yesterday as petrol shortages worsened and violence by disaffected suburban youths spread and intensified.

Around 3.5 million people, according to unions – about the same or marginally fewer than last week – joined marches around the country to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to raise the retirement age to 62. One-day strikes in the public sector disrupted rail and air services but were patchily observed by workers in other sectors.

The sense of crisis threatening the country came not from these "official" protests but from spreading blockages of schools and universities by students and by continuing strikes at oil refineries and the picketing of fuel distribution depots by hardline union branches.

Mr Sarkozy promised rapid action to lift the fuel blockages as the government admitted that 4,000 – almost one in three – petrol stations were "waiting for supplies" (in other words empty).

The Prime Minister, François Fillon, said that "no one has a right to take an entire country hostage" and promised emergency action to restore petrol supplies to normal within five days. Potentially even more seriously, there was a second day of violent clashes between police and hooded youths in Lyon, in Nanterre, west of Paris, and in a score of other towns and suburbs. In Lyon, 200 youths – apparently unconnected to any pension protest – rampaged down the city's main shopping street, burning and overturning cars and looting and smashing shops.

A college, or middle-school, in Le Mans in western France was set alight and burned to the ground in the early hours of yesterday. Although authorities did not directly link the attack to other outbreaks of violence, it was an ugly reminder of the orgy of self-harm unleashed on the troubled multiracial banlieues by rioting youths in October and November 2005.

Fears that the petrol blockages, and piggyback acts of violence, could spiral out of control drew solemn warnings from Mr Sarkozy and Mr Fillon – but also, significantly, from moderate national union leaders. One union federation, the white collar CFE-CGC, called for a "pause" in the anti-pension reform protest to put an end to "excesses" and "exaggerations".

Moderate union leaders have been worried for some time that excessive militancy, even violence, could puncture the strong public support for the unions on pension reform and present President Sarkozy with a moral victory.

Mr Fillon, in a speech to the National Assembly yesterday, deliberately lumped together the refinery strikes and the mini-riots by suburban youths. He said "intimidation, blockages and violence" were a "negation of democracy and of our Republican values".

Mr Sarkozy said: "I appeal to the responsibility of all those involved to make sure things don't breach certain limits."

He said he intended to take new actions to break the refinery strikes and petrol depot blockades by the end of the week.

With the reform due to complete its final stages in the Senate, or upper house of parliament, tomorrow, the government hopes to divide the protesters' ranks by portraying continuing militant actions as "anti-democratic" or even unpatriotic. This may impress the more moderate union rank and file. It is unlikely to deter the other layers of protesters – from oil strikers to students to hooded youths – in a dispute which has become as much anti-Sarkozy and anti-establishment as anti-pension reform. Olivier Besancenot, the media-friendly leader of the Trotskyist New Anticapitalist Party, has been talking for days of a "new May 1968" revolt by students and workers. "The street has power and it can be more powerful than the government," he said yesterday.

Blockages of lycées (equivalent to sixth-form colleges) spread to 1,000 schools yesterday, according to student unions. There were also signs for the first time that university students were joining the protests in large numbers in Lyon, Rennes, Toulouse and Strasbourg. In Paris, lycée students took over part of the Place de la République, one of the city's main intersections, and pelted police with fruit and other soft missiles.

Although they are sometimes lumped together in media reports, there is a clear distinction between "political" student protests of this kind and the anarchic and "anti-system" actions of disaffected, hooded youths in Lyons, Nanterre and elsewhere. In some incidents, the youths have attacked the "official" student protesters simply because they belong to other suburbs or other schools.

In Lyon yesterday, several small groups of youths smashed and looted shops and burned or overturned 30 cars in the city's administrative and shopping district. Thirteen people were arrested. There were also renewed acts of violence and clashes with police in Nanterre, a suburb just west of Paris, and lesser incidents in a score of other areas.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick