Unions in France say more than two million people have joined a series of nationwide protests against plans to increase the retirement age - but many believe the strikes will not change anything, as Lindsey Hilsum discovers.The 24-hour walk-out has caused chaos for rail and air passengers, schools, hospitals and the postal service. Flights in and out of Paris have been hit by 25 per cent, half of rail and underground services were cancelled.Union leaders said more people turned out than the previous protest in June, when two million people turned out on the streets.It was biggest series of demonstrations since President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007. Dozens of rallies have already been taking place in many cities across France.International Editor Lindsey Hilsum said: "In Marseilles they beat drums and chanted...In Lyon they turned out despite the rain...In Poitiers they protested with vuvuzelas, left over from France's ignominious exit from the World Cup. And in Quimper, striking farmworkers even got a cow onto the streets."Bernard Thibault, leader of the other major trade union confederation, the CGT, warned ministers: "If they don't respond and they don't pay heed, there will be a follow-up and nothing is ruled out at this stage."The protests were timed to coincide with the introduction of Sarkozy's flagship pensions reform bill to parliament. The planned law would raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.The age at which workers would be entitled to a full pension would also rise by two years to 67 - bringing it into line with the rest of Europe.But the move is deeply unpopular in France, especially for those working in hard manual jobs.Several hundred steelworkers in the northeast walked out at an Arcelor Mittal plant to join the protests.Union representative Edouard Martin said: "We work 365 days a year in extreme conditions. Dust and noise means we are wearing ourselves out and going beyond 60 years old will send us to a certain death."The latest polls suggest at least two thirds of voters oppose the pensions reforms and support today's protests as President Sarkozy's popularity sinks to a near all-time low.His pensions minister, Eric Woerth, has been implicated in a scandal over alleged illegal political donations by France's richest woman, the L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.Woerth strongly denied the allegations and has refused to resign. But the scandal has served to fuel today's protests - which follow Sarkozy's equally controversial immigration crackdown and the decision to deport thousands of Roma back to Eastern Europe.But France's conservative government said it has no alternative to the swingeing public spending cuts: claiming it is the only way to balance the pensions account within the next eight to 10 years and tackle France's considerable public deficit.Lindsey Hilsum said: "President Sarkozy says he remains firm, but might compromise with the unions and keep pensionable age lower for those who start work young or do hard manual labour..."Opinion polls show two-thirds of voters think it's unfair to rise the retirement age, but they don't believe these strikes will change anything. It's a message to Mr Sarkozy that the French people may have voted him in to bring economic reform, but they resent it nonetheless."
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