There was real ferment in the streets of French cities on Tuesday as a general strike coupled with massive demonstrations across the country brought life to a near standstill. An estimated one million people had joined demonstrations by 4 pm, protesting against the government's plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and eventually 67 years.

“If this influx of people joining the demos continues, we will have met our objective of getting 2 million people to protest,” Socialist MP Claude Bartolone told The Hindu. In fact, they achieved the objective as 2.5 million joined the protests.

“We may have an exceptional day and, if it is exceptional, we will perhaps be at a turning point,” CGT leader Bernard Thibault told reporters.

The crowds in Paris were so thick that the demonstration had to be cut into two, one cortege leaving from the Republique end while the other set off from the Bastille end. Protesters carried placards denouncing President Sarkozy's austerity measures and accusing the government of hypocrisy and corruption.

Unions have also called for the dismissal of the Labour Minister Eric Woerth who is embroiled in a scandal of conflict of interest — he is accused of protecting the interests of the super rich while accepting generous donations from them for the ruling conservative UMP Party of which he was, until recently, the treasurer.

Discussion suspended

The bill on raising the retirement is one of the key reforms the President hopes to push through during the last two years of his mandate. Discussion of the bill in the Lower House was suspended on Tuesday following a noisy session interrupted by two communist deputies who presented a petition against the legislation bearing over 100,000 signatures.

Commuters and other travellers were severely affected as less than half the buses, metros and trains ran services.

Flights, hospital services were affected while post offices, and schools and universities remained shut. France's largest union, the CGT, said it expected the turnout for the protest marches across the country to be stronger than during the strikes in June, when more than 800,000 people took part in demonstrations.

Unemployment figures in France remain high with 9.6 per cent of the active population unable to find jobs.

The government has argued that in the face of an ageing population and a shrinking job market, workers will have to work much longer to keep the country's generous pension and health care schemes afloat. Both the pension and social security funds are deeply in the red. France is one of the few EU countries where retirement at the age of 60 or even earlier is possible with a full pension. But the opposition socialists and the unions say the reforms proposed are unfair and penalise workers who entered the job market at a very young age since they do not take into account the number of years spent on the workplace.

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