Hundreds of thousands of defiant French strikers took to the streets on Thursday, in a last-ditch bid to force President Nicolas Sarkozy to scrap a just-passed law raising the retirement age.
At least 270 rallies were planned around France, as workers and students launched the ninth in a series of one-day mass protests and strikes, part of a movement that has threatened to paralyse the economy.
Most of the demonstrations of recent weeks have been peaceful, but gangs of youths on the fringes of rallies or of school blockades have clashed with riot police in several cities and authorities are on high alert.
Power was cut at the finance and economy ministry for an hour at the start of the day, in what officials described as “an apparent act of ill will”, and initial reports from around the country suggested thousands were marching.
The main protest rally in Paris expected to draw hundreds of thousands in its own right, while previous marches on October 19 drew between 1.1 and 3.5 million nationwide.
But, with the reform now formally approved by parliament and many French families away enjoying the half-term school holidays, labour leaders admitted they were not expecting to match previous mass mobilisations.
“We know there's a bit of tiredness, and the school holidays as well. We're not expecting to beat any records today, but it shows that we're keeping the pressure on,” said Jean-Claude Mailly of the Force Ouvriere union.
At least one more day of action is planned after today, on November 6, but the French parliament has approved Sarkozy's pensions bill and his aides say he intends to sign it into law on or around November 15.
France's Socialist opposition, which accuses the right-wing government of forcing ordinary workers to work longer to compensate for the failures of high finance, demanded that the president stay his pen.
Sarkozy's administration has been insisting that raising the retirement age is not only necessary but “inevitable”, with the French population ageing and the public deficit expanding.