France was paralysed on Thursday by a crippling general strike in protest at the government's decision to rise the retirement age from 60 to 62. The strike call was given by the country's eight major trade unions and 200 demonstrations across the country brought forth an estimated two million persons.

The cortege in Paris showed an unending sea of marchers bearing banners, red flags and satirical portraits of President Nicolas Sarkozy from Place Denfert Rochereau all the way to the Place de la Republique.

Rail and air services remained severely disrupted. Schools were closed as were post offices and government buildings as railway employees, postal workers, hospital staff and other public sector workers joined the strike. For the first time workers from the private sector marched alongside public sector employees.

Massive protests

The success of Thursday's strike will be used as a bargaining chip by the unions to challenge the government's legislation on pension laws when it is tabled in Parliament in autumn. The unions said Thursday's demonstrations will also set the stage for massive protests planned for September when draft law is examined in Parliament.

Initial indications from large cities such as Marseille and Lyon suggested that turnout was very high, with the main rally taking place in Paris.

At a previous union ‘day of protest' in May, some 3,95,000 protesters took to the streets according to police figures. The unions placed the number at one million.

“It is important to show that turnout is much larger than in recent weeks, which will show that workers are starting to realise this reform is unfair,” Francois Chereque, head of the moderate CFDT union said.

There was some controversy over the support the government's plans have received from the general public. The pro-government right wing newspaper Le Figaro published an opinion poll on Thursday suggesting 67 per cent of the French supported the government's plans. But union bosses reacted sharply saying the polls had been fudged by slanted questioning.

Although France's retirement age of 62 is still lower than in many neighbouring nations, an attempt to hike it breaks a significant taboo here, where many see retirement at 60 — introduced by a Socialist government in 1983 — as their right.

The government unveiled its planned overhaul of the pay-as-you-go pensions regime last week, saying that without major changes the system would run up annual deficits of €100 billion ($134.2 billion) by 2050.

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