PARIS – More than 1 million people marched in France on Thursday to demand the government do more to overcome the economic crisis, but the protests had little effect on the prime minister, who urged the public to be patient.
In the biggest showing, at least 85,000 people marched through Paris, but the strikes in cities and towns failed to fulfill a key goal of union organizers: to paralyze the country.
The Interior Ministry said that 1.2 million protesters turned out for some 200 protest marches around the country.
Union officials put that figure at 3 million and said that 350,000 marched through the capital.
The day of action was aimed at forcing the government to open new talks on policies to fight the spreading crisis, with unions saying that action so far is far from sufficient.
Measures announced in February by France's top government official, President Nicolas Sarkozy, include special bonuses for the needy, and the president has said it would stop at that.
Unions had been looking for an opening from Prime Minister Francois Fillon, but during a televised interview Thursday night, he towed the line.
Speaking on TF1 television, Fillon reiterated there would be "no new economic restart plan" and rattled off a series of already-announced measures aimed at limiting the crisis' effects on the needy.
Asked whether his government's intransigence could fuel renewed strikes and increasing social strife, Fillon responded that "the French people need to understand that in the face of such a grave, exterior crisis, what counts is the unity of the French people, not their division."
The country's national statistics agency said Thursday the economy is shrinking at the fastest pace in over 30 years. It said the economy's contraction will accelerate to 1.5 percent in the first quarter, its worst performance since 1975.
France's economic malaise also involves the unemployment. The jobless rate stood at 7.7 percent in the third quarter and is expected to spike to 9.8 percent this year, according to the European Commission, with some of France's largest companies expected to cut their work forces this year.
On Thursday, with a hearty sun shining around France, organizers managed to top their goal of surpassing demonstrators who had taken to the nation's streets in January. Strikers hobbled some sectors without paralyzing the country.
Still, former conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe concluded that street protesters were numerous enough so that "in one way or another, there must be a return to the table" for talks.
"There is real anxiety," said Juppe, now mayor of Bordeaux.
The powerful CGT union claimed that more people took to the streets Thursday than during a Jan. 29 march when it counted 2.5 million.
Despite the impressive showing in the streets of Paris, the strikes were not widely felt in the capital where buses and subways ran at nearly normal rates.
Rail traffic was disrupted throughout France, although the high speed TGV trains that connect the country with European neighbors ran on time. The SNCF train authority said 36 percent of its employees joined the strike. Some suburban Paris lines were seriously hobbled.
About a third of medium-haul flights were affected at Orly, Paris' second airport, and all long-haul flights were normal. The main airport, Charles de Gaulle, was not affected by the strikes.
Strikers disrupted services at schools, hospitals and the postal service to varying degrees. Nearly a third of the country's teachers did not go to school, national education officials said.
"The government must accept to discuss again with the unions," said Bernard Thibaut, head of the CGT, one of France's main unions.
Although Sarkozy's approval ratings are down, he is under far less political pressure than some of his European counterparts and has a comfortable majority in parliament.
Thursday's strikes, or those in January, have failed to ignite serious social protests, as massive strikes did in the mid-1990s.
Jean Batis, a music producer, said, "It's always the same game. They give a little bit, we strike, they give a little bit, we strike."