By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 2:15 PM
PARIS - Hundreds of thousands of French workers, students and functionaries walked out on strike Tuesday and paraded through the streets in what labor unions described as the beginning of a long-term showdown with President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Air and rail service throughout the country was disrupted by the protests - the fourth in a month.
They were aimed specifically at reversing a new law requiring people to work until age 62 rather than 60 before receiving their retirement pensions. But they also were a platform for broader-based political resentments that have been building among France's salary-earners, many of whom view Sarkozy's government as callous and too close to big business.
In the souring atmosphere, union leaders declared many of the strikes that on Tuesday nearly crippled the country would continue indefinitely or recur on an irregular schedule. The result could be gasoline shortages, curtailed rail and air travel, chaos at schools and perhaps even power cuts in France's main cities, they warned.
"We are going to continue," vowed Bernard Thibault, secretary general of the General Labor Federation. "The mobilization is not going to stop just because the senators have voted."
An opinion poll published this week showed Sarkozy with a 31 percent approval rate, down three percentage points from last month. The showing was consistent with a trend of low ratings in recent months that has the opposition Socialist Party dreaming of the previously unthinkable: a victory in the next presidential election in 2012.
"I am marching against the retirement changes, but I'm also here to protest against the whole thing under Sarkozy," said Agnes Flambard, 52, an art historian and dealer who said she broke from her conservative political traditions because she was fed up with the president's confrontational attitude. "The whole thing is just not right. For the first time, I feel like I want to vote for the Socialists."
According to some measures, the strike and protest marches were pointless, because the main points of Sarkozy's new retirement law have already passed in the National Assembly and, as of Tuesday evening, the Senate. But some marchers held out hope that popular pressure could somehow force his government to "reform the reform."
"What the parliament does, the street can undo," read the patch on one protester's arm.
Michel Solognac, 48, who works as a waitress in a company cafeteria in suburban Paris, acknowledged little chance she and her fellow demonstrators would turn Sarkozy's government around on retirement. But she said she felt an obligation to heed union strike appeals and show her unhappiness with the way the country is being run.
"I am doing this for my children and grandchildren," she said, walking down the chic Boulevard Saint-Germain with a little union flag.
Sarkozy's strategy seemed to be to hold firm in the hope that the strikes and street protests will peter out before serious damage is done to the economy, which is still shaky after the 2008-2009 global crisis. In that vein, Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared the government had made all the concessions it could in the retirement reform bill - in effect vowing not to listen to the demonstrators - and condemned leftist political leaders for encouraging students to join the labor unions in protesting.
Previous general strikes this fall did not include widespread student participation. But the Education Ministry reported more than 350 secondary schools out of 4,300 were affected by Tuesday's strike, with activist students imposing what they called a "blockus" to prevent others from entering to attend class. Student groups tried similar tactics at universities across the country, with more or less success.
Cheerful student groups, weaving and bobbing to popular music under a brilliant fall sun, marched alongside labor union activists and leftist militants in the protest marches. As they shuffled through the Paris Latin Quarter, one student battalion danced to an improbable reggae version of "Le Chant des Partisans," the usually solemn hymn of the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II.
Tourists were less amused. Charles de Gaulle International Airport, the capital's main hub, reported a third of its flights were canceled. Up to 40 percent were canceled at the other big Paris airport, Orly. The Eiffel Tower was closed for lack of personnel to welcome visitors.
The government train network, the National Railroad Co., said about 40 percent of its workers stayed away; commuter train and subway traffic was sharply reduced. At the Post Office, about 17 percent were absent, and 14 of the country's main oil refineries went unmanned.