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French strike over pensions age bid

A strike by French unions has shut down trains, planes, buses, underground services, post offices and schools in a dispute over raising the age of retirement.

The action coincided with the start of a debate in parliament over a plan to overhaul the money-losing state pension system so it will break even in 2018.

The government insists raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 is essential as people are living longer, and it has urged everyone to show "courage" as it tries to chip away at the huge national debt.

The French retirement age is already among the lowest in Europe. In contrast, Germany has decided to move up the retirement age from 65 to 67 and the US Social Security system is gradually raising the retirement age to 67 as well.

Unions are hoping to mobilise two million street protesters at more than 200 demonstrations throughout France on Tuesday, at a time when President Nicholas Sarkozy's approval ratings hover in the mid-30% range. A similar effort on June 24 drew nearly 800,000 people.

Civil aviation authorities asked airlines to cancel a quarter of their flights at Paris airports. Only two out of every five of France's famed high-speed trains are scheduled to run during the strike, which began on Monday evening and ends on Tuesday night.

Commuters in Paris packed into cars during the reduced service. Pavements were full of walkers and thousands of bikers took to the streets.

Unions say the French government is attacking one of the country's most cherished social protections.

"If the government wants the next step to go well, it has to give a serious response to the proposals that we ourselves have made," said Francois Chereque, who heads the moderate CFDT union. He said he wants the protests to "restore hope" for citizens while putting pressure on the parliamentary debate.

But labour minister Eric Woerth has said the government will press ahead with the retirement reforms no matter how strong the protest turnout is.

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