The strike action that began on Tuesday was the fifth since May but this time unions upped the stakes by making them open-ended, meaning walkouts could drag on for days or even weeks.

French commuters fought their way onto packed subways and buses on Wednesday as an open-ended strike against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age to 62 entered its second day.

On Tuesday, about 1.2 million people marched in nationwide protests against the pension reform, according to police -- the largest turnout in four nationwide demonstrations over the last five weeks. Unions put the figure much higher, at 3.5 million.

The strong turnout could be a signal of rising momentum for the movement taking on Sarkozy’s governing conservatives over their proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Sarkozy insists the government will stick to the reform, saying it’s only way to save the money-losing pension system -- a reform that comes amid efforts across Europe to reduce sky-high debts that have threatened the euro and Europe’s financial reputation.

On Wednesday, service on Paris’ Metro subway system and buses was slashed by about a quarter, and commuter train lines around Paris also were hit. Only about one in three TGV fast trains were running, and more than half of regular-speed domestic trains were canceled, SNCF national rail operator said. Eurostar trains, which link France to Britain, were running normally, the SNCF said in a statement.

With fewer commuter trains than usual, crowds packed platforms throughout the busy transport hub at Paris’ Saint-Lazare station on Wednesday except the platform for the city’s only fully automated Metro line, where traffic was running as usual.

Public transport workers handed out fliers about the protest movement and were ignored by most passers-by, but a few commuters stopped to argue about the need for a prolonged strike.

The Eiffel Tower was taking in tourists as usual Wednesday after shutting down for a strike on Tuesday.

At the French capital’s two main airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, traffic was back to normal on Wednesday morning following extensive cancellations of short- and medium-haul flights on Tuesday at both airports, said a spokesman for France’s DGAC civil aviation authority. Eric Heraud said traffic at the airports could be disrupted later Wednesday, as a new shift of air traffic controllers takes over in the afternoon.

The strike action that began on Tuesday was the fifth since May but this time unions upped the stakes by making them open-ended, meaning walkouts could drag on for days or even weeks. Previous walkouts only lasted one day.

There were no marches planned for Wednesday, but another round of nationwide demonstrations was scheduled for Saturday. Union leaders have vowed to press on with the strikes until the government scraps the reform, but officials have pledged not to budge.

A key question for the authorities is what France’s students will do. Students, who have helped bring down past government projects with major protests, blockaded some high schools on Tuesday, cancelling classes.

Some oil workers pledged to keep up a protest at refineries, and one union warned of looming gasoline shortages. Unions fear the erosion of a cherished workplace benefit, and say the cost-cutting axe is coming down too hard on workers.

Despite the strikes, parliament has pushed ahead with the reform. The lower house approved it last month, and the Senate already has approved raising the retirement age to 62 but is still debating the overall reform.

Even with the change, France would still have among the lowest retirement ages in the developed world. Prime Minister Francois Fillon told lawmakers that backing down would be “economic madness and a social catastrophe.”

France’s European Union partners are keeping watch as they face their own budget cutbacks and debt woes. Sarkozy’s government is all but staking its chances for victory in presidential and legislative elections in 2012 on the pension reform, which the president has called the last major goal of his term.

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