PARIS — Masked youths wearing black torched cars, smashed storefronts and threw up roadblocks Tuesday, clashing with riot police across France as protests over raising the retirement age to 62 took a radical turn.
Hundreds of flights were canceled and desperate drivers searched for gas as oil refinery strikes and blockages emptied the pumps at nearly a third of the nation's gas stations.
A series of nationwide protests against the bill since early September have been largely peaceful. But Tuesday's clashes, notably just outside Paris and in the southeastern city of Lyon, revived memories of student unrest in 2006 that forced the government to abandon another highly unpopular labor bill.
Still, President Nicolas Sarkozy was unbending Tuesday, vowing 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.
A new test could come as early as Thursday, when students plan a day of mobilization with a demonstration in Paris hours before the Senate is to vote on the retirement measure.
"The government will continue to dislodge protesters blocking the fuel depots.... No one has the right to take hostage an entire country, its economy and its jobs," Prime Minister Francois Fillon said after meeting with oil industry executives.
Some 4,000 gas stations — out of 12,700 nationwide — were empty of gas Tuesday afternoon, the Environment Ministry said.
French unions have a long tradition of street protests, but the current strife is particularly worrisome because it has touched the vital energy sector and is drawing often volatile youth into the mix.
Protesters are trying to stop lawmakers from approving a bill that would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 to prevent the pension system from going bankrupt as citizens live longer and a diminishing pool of young workers pay into the system.