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Transport strike hits France
Hewlett-Packard workers joined an estimated 150,000 at the Paris rally.




PARIS, France (CNN) -- A day-long strike disrupted all modes of public transport in many cities and hundreds of passenger flights at major airports as French labor unions attempt to exert pressure on the government over high unemployment and economic policy.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in cities across the country. The seven unions behind the action had called for one million people to protest against the policies of center-right Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin in marches in 150 cities.

The strike began late Monday night. About half of Paris' rail services were said to be cut, with one-third of all buses and underground trains not running.

The rail operator SNCF said only one in three of its services was running as normal. It had warned on Monday that half its services would be cancelled. More than half of its TGV services were operating, it said.

Services on the Eurostar to Britain and the Thalys services to Belgium were not affected.

Areas outside the capital fared worse.

In Marseilles and Lyon, buses and Metro trains were said to have ground virtually to a halt. In Toulouse, pickets at two major bus stations prevented any buses from running, reports said.


Protesters also took part in marches in many cities. The largest was in Paris, where unions estimated around 150,000 people rallied.

Organizers said 100,000 people marched in Marseilles, while 50,000 turned out in Bordeaux.

"We're protesting because we're generally fed up, for the upkeep of public services. In fact it's everything. Nothing is working any more," one protester told Reuters en route to the Paris march.

CNN's senior Europe correspondent Jim Bitterman said the level of support for the action would demonstrate public sentiment towards Villepin's administration as well as the ability of unions to mount campaigns large enough to affect government policy.

"Those people who really wanted to get into work could probably do it today, although transport would have been more crowded," he said.

He said traffic lines also formed as many commuters used their cars instead, while others had taken to bikes, scooters and even rollerblades.

"There are fewer people than usual. Most of my team have taken the day off," said one commuter at northern Paris' St Lazare train station. "The strikers are right but it does cause some problems."

Flight disruption

Air traffic controllers also joined the action. France's civil aviation authority said about 175 medium and short-haul flights were expected to be cancelled from Orly airport, while 212 would be cut from Charles de Gaulle airport.

Around half of all France's teachers stopped work, leaving many schools shut. They are protesting against job cuts and perceived insufficient budgets.

Some banks and post offices were also forced to close, while many national newspapers did not appear Tuesday.

Other public workers, including some from the energy sector, were expected to join in, but power cuts were not anticipated.

Tensions have been running high between unions and Villepin since September 26, over the government's plan to privatize the Corsican ferry operator SNCM.

That led to strikes and blockades at the port of Marseilles, France's largest, as well as in Corsica, stranding thousands of tourists on the island. Talks to end the dispute will resume on Wednesday.

Unemployment has fallen under 10 percent since Villepin was appointed four months ago, but a recent opinion poll found almost three in four French workers supported the strike.

"I hear the message the French are sending us," he said Tuesday, also the opening day of Parliament. "We want to respond to their worries and their hopes."

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