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France grinds to halt as thousands protest at change to retirement age

A colossal turnout for nationwide protests against pension reform yesterday threatened President Nicolas Sarkozy with a long winter of discontent if he pushes ahead with plans to increase the French retirement age from 60 to 62.

Trades unions comfortably exceeded their target of mobilising two million people on the streets as a nationwide strike disrupted transport, schools, government offices and parts of the media.

In Paris, the demonstration was so large – an estimated 270,000 people or twice the numbers of the last protest in June – that the march had to be split into two halves. More than 100 marches across the country attracted 2.5million people, according to union estimates.

Nor was it just a question of numbers. The Paris protest went far beyond the usual marching tribes of the trades unions and the Left. There were also tens of thousands of middle-class and middle-aged protesters from white-collar jobs and the teaching and medical professions.

Unlike the Tube strikes in London, yesterday's protests had the support of the great majority of French people. More than 70 per cent, according to the latest polls, believe that the unions and the Left are right to oppose Mr Sarkozy's plan to increase the basic retirement age from 60 to 62 by 2018.

It was clear from yesterday's Paris march that other controversies surrounding the President have stoked a sense of righteous anger, especially on the Left, and strengthened the anti-pension reform movement.

For once, the banners and effigies carried by demonstrators did not focus entirely on Mr Sarkozy. Popular butts of derision also included the employment minister, Eric Woerth, and France's wealthiest woman, the L'Oréal heiress, Liliane Bettencourt.

Mr Woerth, who is also the main architect of the pensions reforms, is enmeshed in a tangle of allegations that he sought illegal funding from Ms Bettencourt for Mr Sarkozy's 2007 presidential campaign.

Joaquim, 53, a middle manager in the car industry, marching in yesterday's demonstration,said: "There is now a feeling that, under Sarkozy, things have gone much too far. People are sick of seeing the rich being allowed to get away with everything while we are expected to give up the rights we have won over many years."

François Courton, 80, a retired manager from the Paris city roads department, said that he was there "for the younger people". "If people don't retire at 60, where are the jobs for the young to come from?"

A first reading of the pension reform was introduced to the national assembly last night amid angry scenes. Communist members distributed a petition against the reform while government members shouted "Stalinists".