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France hit by strikes over retirement age

world Updated: Sep 23, 2010 17:44 IST

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French commuters squeezed onto limited public transport and fought for rare parking spots on Thursday as a second round of strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 hobbled trains, planes and schools across France.

Fewer than half of the lines of the Paris Metro were working normally, according to the RATP public transit network, and half the scheduled long-haul trains were expected to be canceled, according to the SNCF state-run rail system.

Major cancellations were expected at Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports, the Paris airport authority said on its website. Aeroports de Paris advised passengers to check with airlines before their flights.

Union leaders are hoping for a massive show of popular discontent at the 232 demonstrations planned throughout the country, and are aiming to top the turnout on Sept. 7, when at least 1.1 million people took to the streets to protest the planned overhaul of the deficit-burdened pension system.

The strikes are seen as a test for the conservative Sarkozy, and are being watched elsewhere in Europe as governments continent-wide struggle to rein in costs with unpopular austerity measures, after a debt crisis in Greece scared markets and sapped confidence in the entire euro currency.

A poll in the left-leaning Liberation daily suggested that 63 percent of respondents supported the strikers, while just 29 percent of those polled supported the government. Almost 60 percent opposed the plan to raise retirement age, with 37 percent in favor of the plan, according to the poll, conducted by the Viavoice agency on Sept. 16 and 17 with 1,002 respondents.

Paris commuter Jeanne Charieres said it was "absolutely normal that people should react" to the pension reform plans. "The French government should probably pay attention to the laws they are currently putting in place because many things could happen, people are really fed up," said Charieres as she attempted to board a Metro at Paris' busy Gare du Nord station. Sarkozy has indicated he is willing to make marginal concessions but remains firm on the central pillar of the reform: increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 and pushing back the age from 65 to 67 for those who want to ensure full retirement benefits. As baby boomers reach retirement age and life expectancy increases, the government insists it is necessary to raise the retirement age so the pension system can break even by 2018. The main teachers union said more than one teacher in two would not show up for class.

"If the government remains deaf, we won't stop at this," said the head of the moderate CFDT union, Francois Chereque, in an interview in Wednesday's Le Parisien daily. "We are a lasting movement," he said.

The Eurostar undersea train service to London was not expected to be affected and the Thalys train from Belgium was expected to be only slightly disrupted, with nine in 10 trains running. On Paris' transit network, commuters on some lines had to queue up even to access the platforms.

Security was higher than usual at some Metro stations, where soldiers armed with machine guns were on patrol. In recent days, top officials here have repeatedly warned that the risk of a terrorist attack on French soil was at a record high. Some unions at the SNCF railway have already called for new strikes to continue beyond Thursday.