French students and public sector workers turned out in force on Tuesday as protests against pension reforms intensified across France.
Unions said as many as 3.5 million people had taken to the streets across France, while police put the estimate at 1.2 million, the largest turnout in four nationwide
demonstrations over the last five weeks.
Rail services, flights and sea ports ran below capacity as the unions kept up their battle. Walkouts reduced flights from Paris's main airports by as much as 50 percent. One in three high-speed TGV trains were running, though international services operated with more frequency.
Limited power cuts targeting public buildings were also expected as utility workers joined the strike movement, France's CGT union said in a statement, calling the cuts "symbolic".
Secondary school students in France blocked the entrance to many of their own schools on Tuesday. Their participation has swelled the ranks of the union-led anti-reform movement, which the government has tried to minimize.
At midday, France’s interior ministry had identified 357 schools (out of 4302 in France) that had been blocked or significantly disrupted by striking students. The National Union of Secondary School Students (UNL), France’s largest group representing that age group, announced a day of widespread student action.
“Sarkozy, you're screwed, the youth is on the street,” hundreds of students chanted in the south-western city of Toulouse, as they joined striking teachers and other state workers who are trying to block Presient Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to raise the retirement age.
The government had hoped students would not join the battle over pension reform that has been brewing since May.
On Tuesday, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told his party’s lawmakers that it was irresponsible for “the far-left and elements of the Socialist Party” to incite “15 year-olds to join the street protests”, according to AFP.
'No more concessions'
Also on Tuesday, Fillon told cabinet ministers the government would make no further concessions to strikers protesting against an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62.
Last week, the proposed bill was amended to add certain exemptions for working mothers, but unions rejected the concessions as inadequate and pressed on with open-ended strikes in several sectors
Bernard Thibault, the leader of the CGT, France’s largest union, called attention to the swelling number of people in the streets. “We will continue, the movement is not going to stop because of the senators’ vote,” Thibault told reporters on Tuesday.
On Monday, France’s Senate backed a key measure raising the age at which workers can retire with a full pension from 65 to 67.
The measure is one of the two main planks of the governmen’t reform package -- the Senate agreed last Friday to raise the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 -- and means the unpopular bill is closer to becoming law.
Across Europe, austerity measures to trim budget deficits have sparked public anger and protests.
Sarkozy's flagship pension bill is turning into one of the biggest battles of his presidency, pitting him against powerful unions who crushed a previous attempt to reform pensions in 1995, and weighing on his already low popularity ratings.