French commuters elbowed their way onto packed subways and buses on Wednesday as an open-ended strike against President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age to 62 entered its second day. The government held firm despite the walkouts.
On Tuesday, about 1.2 million people marched in nationwide protests against the pension reform, according to police — the largest turnout in four nationwide demonstrations over the last five weeks. Unions put the figure much higher, at 3.5 million.
While the strong turnout suggested rising momentum for the movement, the number of strikers appeared to diminish Wednesday in many sectors, from airports to the Eiffel Tower to students picketing high schools.
Sarkozy's governing conservatives say raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 is the only way to save the money-losing pension system — a reform that comes amid efforts across Europe to reduce sky-high debts that have threatened the euro and Europe's financial reputation.
Labor Minister Eric Woerth emphasized that "street protests don't mean that we must scrap an indispensable reform."
Speaking to reporters following a Cabinet meeting Wednesday at the Elysee presidential palace, Woerth said the contested reform "is about nothing less than saving out system."
Service on some of Paris' Metro subway and bus lines was slashed by about a quarter, with about 25 percent of Paris public transit workers still off the job on Wednesday, compared to more than 40 percent on Tuesday, according to the RATP public transport authority. Public transit in other French cities, as well as commuter train lines around Paris, were also hit.
Only about one in three TGV fast trains were running, and more than half of regular-speed domestic trains were canceled, SNCF national rail operator said. Eurostar trains, which link France to Britain, were running normally, the SNCF said in a statement.
With fewer commuter trains than usual, crowds packed platforms throughout the busy transport hub at Paris' Saint-Lazare station Wednesday — except the platform for the city's only fully automated Metro line, where traffic was running as usual.
Public transport workers handed out fliers about the protest movement and were ignored by most passers-by, but a few commuters stopped to argue about the need for a prolonged strike.
The Eiffel Tower was taking in tourists as usual Wednesday after Tuesday's early closure, which forced hundreds of visitors to leave the iconic steel monument.
At the French capital's two main airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly, traffic was back to normal Wednesday morning following extensive cancellations of short- and medium-haul flights Tuesday at both airports, said a spokesman for France's DGAC civil aviation authority. Eric Heraud said traffic at the airports could be disrupted later Wednesday, as a new shift of air traffic controllers takes over in the afternoon.
Workers at oil giant Total's six French refineries kept up their protest, and in a statement Wednesday union leaders there said "not one drop of oil" has been produced at the Total plants since Tuesday morning — sparking warnings of looming gasoline shortages.
The strike action that began on Tuesday was the fifth since May — but this time unions upped the stakes by making them open-ended, meaning walkouts could drag on for days or even weeks. Previous walkouts only lasted one day.
There were no marches planned for Wednesday, but another round of nationwide demonstrations was scheduled for Saturday.
Union leaders have vowed to press on with the strikes until the government scraps the reform, but officials have repeatedly pledged not to budge.
A key question for the authorities is what France's students will do. Students, who have helped bring down past government projects with major protests, blockaded some high schools Tuesday, canceling classes.
Some 135 high schools were blocked or otherwise disrupted by striking students Wednesday, or about 3 percent of the total nationwide, according to the Education Ministry. That was down from 357 disrupted Tuesday.
Unions fear the erosion of a cherished workplace benefit, and say the cost-cutting ax is coming down too hard on workers.
Despite the strikes, parliament has pushed ahead with the reform: The lower house approved it last month, and the Senate already has approved raising the retirement age to 62 but is still debating the overall reform.
Even with the change, France would still have among the lowest retirement ages in the developed world. The country has a huge budget deficit and sluggish growth, and the government says it must get its finances in better order.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon told lawmakers that backing down would be "economic madness and a social catastrophe."
France's European Union partners are keeping watch as they face their own budget cutbacks and debt woes. Sarkozy's government is all but staking its chances for victory in presidential and legislative elections in 2012 on the pension reform, which the president has called the last major goal of his term.
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.