There were angry scenes in the streets of France on Thursday as nearly 2 million workers, mainly from the public sector, struck work for the second time in three weeks.
In massive demonstrations staged in big and small towns across the country, they shouted out their anger and opposition to President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to raise the retirement age to plug the massive deficit in national pension and retirement schemes.
Life in France was brought to a virtual standstill as strike-hit airlines, trains, subways and buses ran skeletal services.
Hospitals, post offices, schools and other public sector services were also seriously affected. The last strike staged on 7 September brought forth an estimated 2.2 million people into the streets. Though Thursday's protests are not as mammoth, they are sufficiently strong to give the government a gigantic headache.
“Out, Out, they're worthless!” claimed some of the banners that bore large caricatures of the President and his discredited Labour Minister Eric Woerth. Embroiled in a series of scandals involving conflict of interest he appears to have lost the confidence of the unions.
“Let Nicolas Sarkozy come and try to stand before vats of molten lead for eight hours a day — and that for 42 years! That man doesn't know what he's talking about. These are reforms for the rich. Not for poor beggars like us who started work at 16 — backbreaking work, mind you and now we can't even stop although our backs and knees are gone!” said Ferdinand, who came to the capital as part of a smelters' delegation.
Several voluble women's groups were in the demonstrations. Women who have interrupted their careers to look after children and homes will not be able to claim their full pension until the age of 67. “What kind of justice is this? I gave up my job to bring up my two sons. Does it mean I have to be penalised for it?” shouted Christine, a 57-year-old secretary who went back to work once her children grew up.
The government on Thursday tried to play down the importance of the strike with the Elysee presidential palace issuing a statement to the effect that fewer people in the streets meant more people had accepted the reforms.
Legislation raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 was last week passed by the Lower House of Parliament where the President's ruling right wing party the UMP and its centrist allies have an absolute majority.
Unruly scenes accompanied the passing of that legislation as the Speaker of the House put an end to all debate infuriating the opposition Socialists, Communists and Greens who jointly called for his resignation.
The Senate or Upper House begins discussing the draft law in early October.