PARIS -- French unions staged nationwide protests on Thursday against plans by President Nicolas Sarkozy to make people work longer to qualify for a full pension, while fishermen blocked ports in a battle over fuel costs.
The disputes posed a problem for the centre-right government, which has promised to modernize the spendthrift state but is constantly bumping up against the nation's culture of protest.
In a rare show of unity, France's eight largest unions called on members to take to the streets in dozens of cities to denounce the government's decision to require employees to work 41 years before retiring against 40 years at present.
"Forty years is already too long," protesters chanted at the start of a rally in Paris.
"Don't touch my pension," others shouted.
Unions estimated that hundreds of thousands of people would take to the streets across France, but there appeared to be little appetite for a full blown strike at this stage.
Public transport in France's two main cities, Paris and Lyon, was little affected, most major rail links were running and very few flights were delayed out of the airports.
The SNCF railways said 25 percent of their workers had gone on strike and state electricity firm EDF said 13.6 percent of its workforce had stopped work. Schools also remained open, meaning it was business as usual for much of France.
However, many French ports were paralyzed, hit both by a 24-hour strike by workers fighting against plans to privatize part of the state docks system and by fishermen up in arms over the rising cost of fuel that has wiped out their profit margin.
RISING LIFE EXPECTANCY
A year after Sarkozy was elected on a platform of sweeping economic reforms, his approval rating has tumbled because of concern over the rising cost of living and disapproval over his abrasive, sometimes flashy, style of government.
Unions hope to tap into this discontent and force a U-turn over pensions. But the government says that rising life expectancy coupled with weak public finances means the pensionable age must rise, as it has elsewhere in Europe.
"We're protesting so that on the one hand we will be able to live off our pensions in the future, but also so that they will allow our children to live," said Georges Sarda, 65, who was on the Paris march and who retired five years ago.
Looking to appease union anger, the government has committed to keeping the minimum retirement age to 60 against 65 in many of its neighbors, including Britain and Italy.
Opponents say the real problem is that many firms lay off workers in their 50s, who then collect benefits until they can retire, and urge the government to tackle this problem first.
Sarkozy has shown little sign of backing down over pensions, but has shown more sympathy towards France's 24,000 fishermen, who say their fuel costs have doubled in a year.
The government on Wednesday offered them 110 million euros ($173.4 million) of aid for 2008 -- a proposal accepted by the main fishing association but rejected by many trawler crews who maintained their blockade of numerous ports.
"We didn't get anything from Paris, only sweeties," said Robert Bougueon, head of a fishing council in the northwest port of Guilvinec, a driving force behind the national protest.
Sarkozy's first major showdown with the unions was last November, when transport workers staged a nine-day strike against plans to scrap special pension rights enjoyed by some state sector workers. The government eventually won the battle.
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