Mass Strikes Against 'Austerity Measures' Hit France

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Agence France-Presse

Mass Strikes Against 'Austerity Measures' Hit France

by
Roland Lloyd Parry

Strike organisers said millions of people took to the streets to protest the government's plans. (Reuters)

PARIS — A mass strike against the French government's plan to raise
the retirement age disrupted transport and shut down schools on
Thursday, with unions saying millions of protestors took to the streets.

Postal
workers, gas, electricity and factory workers joined in the movement
across the private and public sectors which all but shut down several
radio stations, newspapers and theatres.

As protestors massed for
a big march in eastern Paris, Bernard Thibault, head of France's
biggest union the CGT, estimated countrywide turnout at "about two
million".

Among the disruptions for commuters in cities across
France, transport authorities said about one in two mainline trains
were running in and out of Paris, with three in four Paris metro trains
operating.

The DGAC airport authority said 15 percent of flights
would have to be cancelled between 7:00 am and 2:00 pm (0500 and 1200
GMT) from Paris's main international hub Charles de Gaulle and its
other main airport, Orly.

The government said nearly 19 percent
of civil servants and more than 18 percent of school staff stayed away
from work. Several schools were forced to close.

The government
last week unveiled proposals to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62
by 2018, increasing the number of working years required for a state
pension, as part of efforts to cut France's big budget deficit.

Unions say the move puts an unfair burden of reform on workers.

"We
have more than 200 rallies all across France and we're hearing from the
ground that there is an exceptional turnout," said Francois Chereque,
leader of the CFDT union, on RTL radio on Thursday morning.

"Employees are realising that this reform is unfair."

Organisers
said more than 120,000 people joined a march to the sound of
firecrackers and African-style "vuvuzela" horns in the southern city of
Marseille. Police put the figure at 14,500.

Performances were cancelled at the Comedie Francaise national theatre and both national Opera houses in Paris.

Striking
print workers prompted daily newspapers such as Le Monde and Liberation
to scrap their Friday editions and radio stations such as all-news
France Info had to play music to fill gaps in programming.

Mass
protests have forced French governments to back down on social reforms
in the past, but Labour Minister Eric Woerth said the government would
not bend on raising the retirement age.

He insisted on Wednesday
that the reform was "indispensable and fair" but acknowledged there was
room for negotiation on issues such as allowances for workers with
particularly tough jobs.

The pensions reform bill goes before cabinet next month and parliament is to vote on the legislation in September.

A
poll by Ifop published this week by the pro-government newspaper Le
Figaro said 58 percent of French people found the planned reform
acceptable, though a survey by pollster CSA said 68 percent sympathised
with the protestors.

Demonstrators criticised President Nicolas
Sarkozy for scheduling a meeting on Thursday with French footballer
Thierry Henry to discuss France's humiliating exit from the World Cup,
which dominated the news on Thursday.

"There aren't enough of us
in the street, but Sarkozy doesn't care anyway. While we're here, he's
meeting footballers," said Marcel Bonnet, 63, protesting in Lyon.

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