Between one and three million French workers rallied two weeks ago to fight the reforms and unions were hoping for an even bigger day of demonstrations and disruption to keep the right to retire at the age of 60.
Sarkozy, already under attack from the European Union for deporting Roma and from the media over a lingering financial scandal, has insisted he will press on with the reform regardless, as he eyes re-election in less than two years.
More than 231 separate demonstrations were held nationwide, up from the 213 staged on September 7, an increase which CGT union boss Bernard Thibault said proved there was “a bigger support base throughout the country.”
With the day’s success or failure being judged on whether more or fewer people took part compared to two weeks ago, the government and unions each came up with their own conflicting figures for turnout.
Officials said 26% of teachers, 24% of France Telecom staff, 20% of civil servants, 15% of local government employees and 12% of health workers were on strike, fewer than on September 7.
Sarkozy’s office said there was a noticeable drop in strikers, which it said meant that “either the French feel that all this is behind them or they’re more in favour of the reform or both.”
Nevertheless, a greater proportion of flights were cancelled, and the head of the CFDT union, Francois Chereque, said that more coaches had been hired to bring protesters to Paris than two weeks ago.
Trade union confederation UNSA admitted that the number of strikers was down, but that the number of street demonstrations was “the same or higher” than two weeks ago.
More than two-thirds of French – 68% – supported the day of action, according to an opinion poll published by the communist daily L’Humanite, while only 15% were against it.
However, the pension reform bill has already been passed by France’s lower house of parliament and will be debated from October 5 by the upper house, the Senate, where it is expected to pass comfortably.
Walkouts hit schools and transport hardest, with only around one train in two running nationally, although Eurostar services to London and Thalys trains to Brussels were predicted to run as normal.
Several schools announced in advance that they would be closed.
Unions said that around half of teachers did not turn up to work, as on the last day of protests, while the education ministry said that only a quarter were on strike.
The rail slowdown started on Wednesday evening with many night trains cancelled and was expected to continue until early today.
At least 50% of flights at Paris Orly airport were cancelled and 40% at the capital’s Charles de Gaulle airport – more than the 25% cancelled on September 7, said the DGAC civil aviation authority.
Around 40% of flights at other airports were cancelled, it said.
Air France said its long-haul flights were unaffected, although half its short-and medium-haul flights at Paris airports would be cancelled.
The French government argues the pension reform could save €70 billion by 2030 at a time when France’s public deficit – at around 8% of GDP – is well above the eurozone target of 3%.