PARIS | Strikes hobbled public transit in France and London on Tuesday, forcing tourists and commuters to bear the brunt of a wave of discontent over government cost-cutting measures that are expected to prompt walkouts across Europe this fall.
French unions staged a nationwide walkout over plans to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, cutting service on trains, planes, buses and subways. London Underground workers unhappy about job cuts closed much of the city’s subway system — the first in a series of 24-hour strikes planned for the fall.
The strikes came as European Union finance ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to create new financial institutions in hopes of preventing a repeat of the government debt crisis that nearly left Greece bankrupt and brought the European banking system to its knees. The union’s 27 finance ministers failed to find common ground, however, on the introduction of a levy on banks or on a new tax on financial trading.
In France, some post offices shut down, schools were hamstrung and public hospitals were hit with a nearly 18 percent staff cut for the day. At least one news radio station played music. The strike also blocked the Atlantic coast port at Saint-Nazaire, including vessels that feed into the nearby Total refinery.
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 ran during the strike, which began Monday evening and ends Tuesday night.
Thousands gathered in Marseille, Lyon, Paris and other cities for marches to cap the strikes. In Paris, the crowd marched to drum beats, with many carrying balloons. The Interior Ministry said that as of noon, some 450,000 people were demonstrating throughout France.
Unions hope to mobilize a total of 2 million street protesters at more than 200 demonstrations across France, at a time when French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s approval ratings hover in the mid-30 percent range.
The French strike coincides with the start of debate in parliament over a plan to overhaul the money-losing pension system so it will break even in 2018. The government insists the reform 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 of 60 is already among the lowest in Europe. In contrast, neighboring Germany has decided to bump the retirement age from 65 to 67, and the U.S. Social Security system is gradually raising the retirement age to 67.
But unions say the French government is attacking one of the country’s most cherished social protections.
The action in France and Britain appeared a precursor to more discontent elsewhere in Europe. A general strike was planned in Spain for Sept. 29 over labor market reforms, and in the Czech Republic, a massive protest against proposed austerity measures, including 10 percent salary cuts for state employees, was set for Sept. 21.
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