PARIS — French authorities estimated nearly 1 million protesters filled the streets Thursday to try to force President Nicolas Sarkozy to drop his plan to raise the retirement age two years to 62, while strikes also disrupted airports, train stations and schools for the second time this month.
The protest movement has been a big test for Sarkozy, who, like other European leaders, has struggled to convince his country of the need for cost-cutting and scaling back generous social benefits after the Greek debt crisis scared markets and sapped confidence in the entire 16-nation euro currency.
France's powerful unions consider retirement at 60 to be a near-sacred right, and more than 230 demonstrations stretched from the southern port city of Marseille to Lille in the north. Some protesters carried signs demanding early retirement for Sarkozy, whose approval ratings hover in the mid-30s.
In Paris, one protester carried a sign reading, "Austerity? For the rich first!"
Some retirees were marching out of solidarity for youths.
"Today we have a pension, we deserve one, and we wish the same thing for the younger generation," said retired police officer Michel Fourgues.
In recent days, top officials have said repeatedly that the risk of a terrorist attack on French soil was at a record high, a highly unusual warning in France. But protesters seemed unworried.
"What's the point of stirring panic, so that people stay home today because they're worried the protest might be bombed?" said Micko Bourdo, a disc jockey from the Basque region.
As baby boomers reach retirement age and life expectancy increases in France, the conservative government insists it must raise the retirement age so the money-losing pension system can break even by 2018.
Sarkozy has indicated he is willing to make marginal concessions but remains firm on the central pillar: increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62 and pushing back the age from 65 to 67 for those who want full retirement benefits.