Riot police fired tear gas at anti-nuclear protesters in a Normandy field while activists damaged a railway and delayed the departure of a train carrying recycled uranium to Germany on Wednesday.
The train finally left the depot at Valognes a bit later than scheduled, but is expected to meet protests and resistance all along its journey from a nuclear waste processing site on the English Channel to a storage site in northern Germany.
Protesters point to the disaster at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant after a tsunami earlier this year as an urgent reason to abandon atomic power.
"Stop This Radioactive Train," read banners waved by protesters.
Some 300 demonstrators clashed with police on Wednesday in fields in the village of Lieusaint, outside Valognes, the site of the rail depot from where the train loaded with the uranium treated by French nuclear company Areva departed.
Vehicles were set aflame, and riot police responded with volleys of tear gas. It was not immediately clear if there were injuries.
Separately, someone deliberately damaged a section of train track, said Najim Chiabri of the SNCF national rail authority.
"They used a special tool to elevate the rail and they have put ballast there to stop the rail getting back into its usual position, so it creates a bump of about 5 to 10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches)," he said. He said they would use stones to stabilize the track and allow the train to pass.
Activists wore scarves on their noses and mouths to protect against the tear gas fumes. Riot police walked amid rail tracks, patrolling for trouble makers.
State-run Areva treats spent nuclear fuel from other nations, to the ire of those who contend such shipments are too dangerous for rail, sea or road.
Areva spokesman Julien Duperray said, "We respect every opinion on nuclear energy. What we do not respect and what we do condemn is the fact that some people express their opinion by, let's say, some violent actions, violent means."
Duperray said the train was expected in Gorleben, Germany, in "about three days."
In Germany, police are preparing a big security operation to protect the nuclear waste shipment, as protests are expected, despite a decision to speed up the country's exit from nuclear energy.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's government decided after Japan's nuclear disaster this year to shut all Germany's nuclear plants by 2022. But officials haven't resolved where waste should be stored permanently _ and activists argue the Gorleben site is unsafe.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, however, reiterated his commitment to nuclear power in a speech Tuesday and said the government should continue to invest in it. France is more reliant on nuclear power than any other country, with the majority of its electricity coming from atomic reactors.
Martin Benedyk in Valognes contributed to this report.