PARIS – PARIS (AP) — Trains stood still and children played instead of studied as workers around France went on strike Thursday to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy's plans to raise the retirement age to 62.
Boisterous crowds of protesters filled Marseille's port and wide Paris avenues, as unions staged nearly 200 marches in several cities over a broad reform to the money-losing pension system, part of efforts around Europe to cut back on growing public debts.
"Sarkozy, Don't Touch our Pensions!" read one banner at the Paris march, near a cardboard coffin marked: "Here lies Roger. He's 60, and he died before getting his retirement."
The ranks of demonstrators swelled in comparison to a similar protest May 27. The Interior Ministry put the number of protesters around France at 797,000 — double the number of people in the streets in May.
Police say 47,000 people marched in the French capital, while the powerful CGT union put the number at 130,000. They said least 25,000 people marched in Bordeaux and at least 16,000 turned out in Marseille — a figure organizers sneered at as blatantly false.
"It's a rather strong mobilization," Labor Minister Eric Woerth conceded on RTL radio. "But the reform is ambitious."
Prime Minister Francois Fillon was likely to address the contentious subject of retirement age at a hastily scheduled news conference Friday.
Demonstrating his concern about the state of public finances, Sarkozy is cancelling the annual garden party for Bastille Day on July 14, citing the high cost of the glamorous event that is an annual mainstay.
France has one of Europe's lowest retirement ages, allowing workers to retire at 60 in most sectors. The government says the reform to the money-losing pension system is an "obligation," given France's burgeoning deficit and its aging population.
Unions say money for the pension system should come from higher taxes or charges on those who are still working, and see cost-cutting in the pension system as an attack on a hard-fought way of life.
Sebastien Sihr, secretary general of the SNUipp union, called the reform "a step backward."
"They are refusing to imagine other sources of funding," he told The Associated Press at the Paris march, where a crowd of thousands whistled and cheered, waving red, white and blue balloons under a hot summer sun. Vuvuzellas, the South African horns the world has become familiar with at the World Cup, made their appearance on French streets.
Commuters, meanwhile, made do, some cramming into sweaty, overcrowded buses and subway trains.
Hundreds of passengers were stranded at Rome's main train station Wednesday when the overnight train to Paris was canceled because of the strike. Authorities were putting the passengers on buses instead. Swiss national railway company SBB said about 60 percent of trains between France and Switzerland have been canceled because of the strike.
The French civil aviation authority, DGAC, asked airlines to cancel 15 percent of their flights out of Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports because of strikes by air traffic controllers. Air France said long-haul flights would remain unaffected.
Commuter Stephanie Larcher, a 29-year-old town planner, from Buressuryvette, in the outskirts of Paris, said she's had to add an extra hour onto her daily four-hour journey.
"I find it completely irritating, especially because train workers go on strike for any little thing," she said.
However, Nathalie Arthaud, head of the far-left party Lutte Ouvriere, denounced "this world of the rich, ministers, cigars, private jets. It's the same government that tells us to work longer. It's revolting."
About 20 percent of French teachers went on strike, the Education Ministry said. Utility workers, postal workers, dock workers, workers at planemaker Airbus and some hospital workers also took part in the one-day walkout.
The French pension reform pales in comparison with more drastic changes elsewhere in Europe. Germany, for example, plans to gradually raise its retirement age from 65 to 67, starting in 2012.
Bernadette Douisson, secretary general of the FSU union, said the French government's real concern should be boosting employment in a country where large numbers of youth and seniors can't get jobs.
Woerth, the labor minister, says the reform will save nearly euro19 billion ($29.3 billion) in 2018 and should bring the pension system back into the black that year.
The reform is scheduled to be instituted progressively, stretching out the number of years people have to work to win full pension payments.
The Cabinet is to discuss the proposals in July, and they're expected to go before parliament next autumn.
Associated Press writers Jean-Marie Godard in Paris, Victor Simpson in Rome and Eliane Engeler in Geneva contributed to this report.