French workers poured onto the streets today to defend their right to retire at 60, as rolling strikes shut down oil refineries and threatened to leave Paris airports without fuel.
High-school students have bolstered a wave of protests against president Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to increase the minimum retirement age to 62, and riot police fired tear gas and arrested over 200 at student rallies on Friday.
Interior minister Brice Hortefeux has told police to "limit the use of force to what is strictly necessary" when dealing with any student unrest that erupts at Saturday's protests, the fifth in less than six weeks.
Unions want to pummel the government into backing down on its pension reform plans, staging strikes on weekdays and mass demonstrations in cities at the weekend. Over 230 rallies are planned for Saturday, the CGT union said.
Unions are hoping that millions will take part in the main march in Paris, to begin around 12.30pm GMT, as rallies kicked off around the country.
"We're prepared to demonstrate under the snow if it takes that long," Airbus worker Stephane Thibault, 37, said at a demonstration in the southern city of Toulouse, where the government said 24,000 were on the streets.
"We're mobilised, everyone seems motivated. With right-wing governments, we know you have to resist," he said.
Strikes have shut down 10 out of France's 12 oil refineries, despite riot police being dispatched to keep the fuel flowing amid reports of panic buying.
The government has given oil companies permission to tap into their own emergency stocks, but has resisted calls to open the part of the French strategic fuel reserve controlled by a government committee.
Lack of fuel forced the shutdown of a pipeline to Paris's two main airports.
The main Paris hub, Roissy Charles de Gaulle, has enough aviation fuel to last until Monday evening or Tuesday, the transport ministry said, with planes reportedly being told to arrive with enough fuel for the return journey.
"We have ways of finding a solution to supply the airport. We're confident," the spokesman said. "The pipeline supplying fuel to Orly and Roissy airports is working intermittently."
Finance minister Christine Lagarde called on people not to panic about potential fuel shortages.
"I'm sure that with intelligent social dialogue we will be able to free things up rather than block them," she said.
Shopowners began clearing rubbish from streets in the southern port of Marseille, where rubbish collectors have been on strike since Wednesday.
French truck drivers are also to join protests. "There's impatience, the guys are saying 'let's go'," said transport union chief Maxime Dumont
Railway operator SNCF said that on average two out of three high-speed TGV trains would be running in and out of Paris, although only one TGV in four will run outside the capital. The Paris metro will be running normally.
Because of a separate Belgian railway strike all high-speed Thalys trains between Paris and Brussels will be cancelled. Eurostar trains travelling under the Channel will be unaffected.
Unions and the Socialist opposition have vowed to defend the right to retire at 60. They accuse Sarkozy of making workers carry the burden for the failure of the financial sector, and have proposed increasing taxes on the rich.
A nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations last Tuesday brought more than a million people on to the streets, and workers in some sectors have kept up their stoppages since then. Another mass strike is planned for next Tuesday.
More than half of French - 57 percent - want the government to draw up a new pension reform law, an opinion poll in the communist daily L'Humanite said, while 27 percent want the bill to remain as is.
The head of the powerful CGT union, Bernard Thibault, warned that the protests might not end even after the government passes the reform law.
"Today they think they can pass the law. We'll see, there's still a day of demonstrations and strikes on Tuesday," he told Europe 1 radio.
"You know from experience that even a law that has been passed doesn't end dissent," Mr Thibault added, referring to 2006 protests that led to a law on youth employment contracts never being applied despite being passed.
But the government has shown no sign of retreating from what is a cornerstone of Sarkozy's reform agenda as he prepares for his likely re-election battle in 2012.