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.
Neighboring countries suffered along with Paris commuters, as walkouts by drivers delayed or canceled trains from Italy and Switzerland. Some flights were dropped or delayed.
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."
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.
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.
About 20 percent of French teachers were on strike, according to the Education Ministry. 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, the secretary general of the FSU union, said the French government's real concern should be boosting employment in a country where large numbers of young people and seniors can't get jobs.
Labor Minister Eric Woerth says the reform will save nearly 19 billion euros ($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 and will also stretch out the total number of years people have to work to win full pension payments.
The Cabinet is to discuss the proposals in July, and they are expected to go before parliament next autumn.
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