UPDATE 6-French unions test Sarkozy in pensions strike
* Unions say 2.5 million march to fight pension reform bill
* Railways, airways, schools hit as strikes start to bite
* Minister says Sarkozy to make some proposals Wednesday
(Adds comments by labour minister, trade union chief)
By Brian Love
PARIS, Sept 7 (Reuters) - French trade unions said 2.5 million people took to the streets on Tuesday to protest over pension reforms that President Nicolas Sarkozy says he is determined to implement on the way to elections in 2012.
Tapping into growing unease over austerity as Europe emerges deeply indebted from recession, French union leaders demanded the centre-right government heed their call to backtrack or run the risk of an escalation.
"If they don't respond and they don't pay heed, there'll be a follow-up and nothing is ruled out at this stage," Bernard Thibault, leader of the large CGT union, told a Paris rally.
Thibault told TF1 news later that union leaders will meet on Wednesday afternoon and if they did not get a favourable response from the government, another strike was possible.
Millions of commuters across London also struggled to get to work as a 24-hour strike by workers on the British capital's underground rail system crippled much of the network, hurting the city's convalescent economy. [ID:nLDE6861AR]
The French strikes cut national rail services by about 50 percent and disrupted underground train services in Paris -- but not as much as initially feared. One in four flights at Paris airports was cancelled.
Some 2.5 million people protested in all, according to a CFDT union spokesman, topping the two million the unions say participated in June for a previous protest.
The official estimate from the interior ministry, which is always far lower than organisers' tallies, was 1.1 million.
In one of many protests nationwide, demonstrators in the French Riviera city of Nice held up banners saying: "Our pensions are ours. We fought to earn them, we will fight to keep them."
Analysts said the large protest turnout would probably not be enough to secure much more than marginal concessions beyond the essentials of what many regard as the flagship of Sarkozy's five-year term, which ends in early 2012.
Those essentials are a rise to 62 from 60 in the legal minimum retirement age, and a rise to 67 from 65 in the age at which people are entitled to retire on a full pension -- all part of a plan to balance the system's finances by 2020.
"For the unions, today is a victory in terms of turnout," said Jean-Francois Doridot of the opinion pollsters IPSOS.
"But the point is to make progress on the draft law, to make changes to the text, which they will have difficulty doing. So we can talk about a victory that is symbolic, rather than real."
For other French stories, click [ID:nECONOMYFR]
For a graphic on European retirement ages see:
As protesters marched, Labour Minister Eric Woerth, battered by a scandal over alleged conflicts of interest and illegal political donations, defended the pension reform bill in parliament, which is due to adopt the bill next month.
Woerth said he would meet Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon early on Wednesday before a cabinet meeting.
"The president will make a statement (later) in the council of ministers on the proposals we will make on the text of the reform," Woerth told TF1 news, adding that the minor proposals will touch on the issue of arduous work.
A question session in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, was briefly halted as Communist deputies staged a boisterous protest in front of the beleaguered minister.
Opinion polls show two-thirds of voters think Sarkozy's plan is unfair, but the same number thinks the strikes will make no difference.
"Never in polling history have the French people been so convinced that there's a social injustice," said political analyst Roland Cayrol at Paris's Sciences Po institute.
With Sarkozy's approval ratings close to all-time lows, the government is under pressure to cede some ground, and Woerth repeated that the reform could make allowances for people in jobs where the wear and tear is extreme over time.
France's strikes mostly were in the public sector but some 700 steel workers downed tools at an Arcelor Mittal (ISPA.AS) plant in the northeast to highlight that side of the problem.
"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," Edouard Martin, a CFDT union representative, told I-tele TV.
Sarkozy advisers hinted on Sunday he could make further concessions beyond the pension bill, such as amending a widely criticised "tax shield" put in place to ensure the wealthy do not pay more than 50 percent of their income to the state.
The labour unrest mirrors action in other European countries against austerity measures as governments strive to reduce the debts run up in the recession of 2008-09.
Governments in Greece, Spain, Italy and Romania have so far faced down strikes to impose painful pay and spending cuts.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, John Irish, Vicky Buffery, Nick Vinocur, Bate Felix, Thierry Leveque and Gerard Bon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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