French commuters squeezed on to limited public transport and fought for rare parking spots today as a second round of strikes against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 hobbled trains, planes and schools across France.
Fewer than half of the lines of the Paris Metro were working normally, according to the RATP public transit network, and half the scheduled long-haul trains were expected to be cancelled, according to the SNCF state-run rail system.
Major cancellations were expected at Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports, the Paris airport authority said on its website. Aeroports de Paris advised passengers to check with airlines before their flights.
Union leaders are hoping for a massive show of popular discontent at the 232 demonstrations planned throughout the country, and are aiming to top the turnout of September 7, when at least 1.1 million people took to the streets to protest against the planned overhaul of the deficit-burdened pension system.
The strikes are seen as a test for the conservative Mr Sarkozy, and are being watched elsewhere in Europe as governments struggle to rein in costs with unpopular austerity measures, after a debt crisis in Greece scared markets and sapped confidence in the entire euro currency.
A poll in the left-leaning Liberation daily paper suggested 63% of respondents supported the strikers, while 29% supported the government.
Almost 60% opposed the plan to raise the retirement age, with 37% in favour of the plan, according to the poll, conducted by the Viavoice agency on September 16 and 17 with 1,002 respondents.
Mr Sarkozy has indicated he is willing to make marginal concessions but remains firm on the central pillar of the reform: increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 and pushing back the age from 65 to 67 for those who want to ensure full retirement benefits.
As baby boomers reach retirement age and life expectancy increases, the government insists it is necessary to raise the retirement age so the pension system can break even by 2018.
The main teachers union said more than 50% of members would not attend class.
The Eurostar train service to London was not expected to be affected and the Thalys train from Belgium was expected to be only slightly disrupted, with nine in 10 trains running.
On Paris's transit network, commuters on some lines had to queue up even to access the platforms.
Security was higher than usual at some Metro stations, where soldiers armed with machine guns were on patrol. In recent days, senior officials have repeatedly warned that the risk of a terrorist attack on French soil was at a record high.
Some unions at the SNCF railway have already called for new strikes to continue beyond Thursday.