PARIS -- A widespread public sector strike shut down much of France on Tuesday, forcing Parisians to take the day off or walk to work and reducing air and train services to the bare minimum.
The strike protesting plans to overhaul France's costly retirement system dealt the most serious blow to the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin since it came to power a year ago.
Despite public support for the walkouts, government leaders vowed not to back down, warning the pension system will go bust within 20 years if not changed.
"There is no alternative to this reform," Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon told a parliamentary session Tuesday. "The government will not stop half way."
The changes would effectively end the privileged position of state employees by requiring them to work more years to qualify for full retirement benefits. Union leaders, particularly from the communist-backed CGT, immediately called for a new round of strikes.
Police said more than one million protesting workers marched through France's major cities, while unions said the number was 2 million. In Paris, authorities said 70,000 took to the streets, but union leaders put that at 250,000.
Teachers, post office workers, and employees of some private sector companies also walked off the job. With no delivery service, newspapers, too, fell victim to the "day of action."
Transport disruptions were massive.
Airport authorities said around 80 percent of flights in France were canceled, with only minimal service at airport control towers. Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport was nearly deserted.
The national railway SNCF reported that almost 60 percent of its employees stayed away from work, the highest participation rate for a railway strike in nearly a decade.
Metro and bus services were also cut to a minimum, meaning many had to walk or bike to work. The occasional running train was packed with commuters, and crowds on a platform at Paris' Saint Lazare station grew so large that some people had to jump onto the tracks to avoid the crush.
Faced with the outcry, Fillon, the social affairs minister, said the government was "open to more discussions" to "improve" the reform project, but not to modify its fundamentals.
Union leaders had denounced the government for failing to sufficiently consult them about its plans.
"If the government maintains this attitude, we will have to inevitably intensify the protest movement," said Bernard Thibault, the head of the CGT union.
The government's decision to hold further talks before it presents a bill to parliament this summer was seen as an effort to split the unions, thereby weakening the movement.
Francois Chereque, leader of the more business-friendly CFDT union, welcomed the government's decision and said he would back the reforms with only minor changes. He did not join five other unions in calling for another nationwide strike next Monday.
The government has proposed lengthening time employees must contribute to the pension system, including civil servants who normally have special privileges. Under the proposed changes, their contribution is to be extended progressively from 37.5 years to 40 years by 2008.
An effort to revamp the retirement system in 1995 triggered a wave of strikes that lasted some three weeks and contributed to the downfall of the conservative government.