By Andrew Malone
Rage spills out on to the streets of France… as Sarkozy and Carla Bruni live the high life
Their faces contorted with hatred, hundreds of thousands of protesters yesterday wreaked havoc across France, burning schools and cars, and fighting running battles with riot police.
Bloody clashes erupted in 300 towns and cities, sparked by austerity measures aimed at dealing with the global financial crisis.
The outpouring of violence was viewed with horror by other European leaders.
To the west of Paris, orange flames licked the sky as rioters torched college buildings and blocked roads to prevent emergency vehicles reaching the flashpoints.
The Val D’Huisine College in Le Mans was reduced to charred rubble after the main gate was barricaded by gangs of masked youths determined to prevent the conflagration being brought under control.
Ashen-faced, Claude Boulard, the socialist mayor of Le Mans, said: ‘It’s an utter disaster. The college has burned to the ground. There’s nothing left but cinders.’
A 15-year-old girl was injured when a scooter exploded after it was set alight by rioters.
The insurrection flared as thousands of students joined trade unionists and public sector workers in a nationwide show of strength.
But there was another, more troubling, aspect as hundreds of masked youths – including unemployed immigrants – tried to hijack the national strike by fighting pitched battles with CRS police, who responded with tear gas and baton charges.
In Paris, 330,000 marched through the centre of the capital in a carnival spirit, assembling at Napoleon’s tomb at Invalides.
The demonstration passed off peacefully, but hooded young trouble-makers could be seen lurking on the edge of the official protest.
In Lyons, youths pelted police lines with rocks and set cars and rubbish bins alight, while at Lorient, in Brittany, gendarmes clashed with a group of 100 militants marching behind 3,000 peaceful demonstrators.
Lorry drivers, oil refinery workers, train drivers and air traffic controllers joined teachers and other public sector workers in the protests. Already, week-long strikes at oil refineries, and blockades of fuel depots, have left petrol stocks perilously low.
With thousands of police deployed, gangs of rioters caused mayhem in towns and cities from Paris to Marseilles. More than 400 people were arrested and dozens of police hurt.
Police in Paris, Marseilles and Lyons also reported cash machines being sabotaged, along with other ‘symbols of capitalism’ such as luxury cars, which were set ablaze.
A spokesman for the national police said: ‘There’s an anarchic spirit across the country.’
A defiant Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it was time to break militant workers’ stranglehold on the nation’s oil refineries, which has caused one in five petrol stations to run dry.
He told the National Assembly, France’s lower parliamentary house: ‘No one has the right to hold an entire country, its economy and its people hostage.’
President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to face down the rioters, despite polls showing that more than 70 per cent of people support the protests.
‘The reform is essential,’ he said. ‘France is committed to it and will go ahead with it.’
But the pension bill, which will raise the French retirement age from 60 to 62, is due to be rubber stamped by tonight – virtually guaranteeing further bloodshed and raising the disturbing prospect of a nationwide state of emergency being declared.
Many fear a repeat of the May 1968 riots in Paris when thousands took to the streets to try to bring down the government, leading to genuine fears of a new French revolution.
Union leaders last night claimed 3.5million people took part in demonstrations. The government put the number at fewer than 500,000.
The protesters are fighting to safeguard working conditions which are the envy of most other European countries.
That aside, many protesters have been angered by details of his personal extravagance.