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Mass Strikes Against 'Austerity Measures' Hit France

by Roland Lloyd Parry

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.

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