* Unions protest budget cuts but participation modest
* Some unions sit out action, say little will be achieved
* Most trains on schedule,, disruption limited
By Alexandria Sage
PARIS, Oct 11 French transport workers went on
strike and unions held rallies on Tuesday against measures to
curb the public deficit, but the much lower turnout than in last
year's pension reform protests may reassure the government as
Five unions, including the CFDT and the prominent CGT
syndicate, the two biggest groups, organised about 200 street
rallies and strikes across France against President Nicolas
Sarkozy's budget-cutting measures.
Sarkozy is battling to preserve France's cherished AAA
credit rating, as sputtering growth threatens deficit goals,
while trying not to irk voters already fed up with economic
gloom seven months before a presidential election.
The bulk of the budget-trimming measures -- which the
government stresses do not constitute an austerity plan --
consist of scrapping tax exemptions on everything from private
health insurance to real estate capital gains. The plan also
includes a new tax on the wealthy.
Unions have urged Sarkozy to focus on growth and called for
Tuesday's action, held during France's traditional protest month
"We're fed up with austerity," said CGT leader Bernard
Thibault, who marched with union members in the Mediterranean
port city of Marseille.
"They always ask more of workers. They touch our purchasing
power ... while the most fortunate again find the upper hand in
the situation," he said. "This isn't a crisis for everyone."
Several thousand people marched in Marseille, while in the
central city of Lyon, protestors waving red flags protested at
the rising cost of living.
Outside the Paris stock exchange, CFDT members stacked up
cardboard boxes painted gold and labeled "100 million euros" as
Pink Floyd's song "Money" blared from a loudspeaker.
"Today, it's a message," Francois Chereque, the CFDT head,
told reporters, as nearly 100 union members sat in the plaza.
"We, the unions, are present and we are ready to act."
While the Paris metro was more crowded than usual, trains at
major stations like Paris' Gare de Lyon were generally running
on time and, on average, three out of four high-speed TGV trains
State railway operator SNCF said 21 percent of its workers
participated in the strike.
Student protestors also blocked access to a few high schools
in Paris, where students have their own union.
Last year, more than a million demonstrators -- union
workers, supporters and students -- turned out for a two-week
strike marked by rowdy street protests and widespread work
stoppages that badly disrupted transport, blocked oil refineries
and let garbage pile up in some cities.
Unions have called Sarkozy's budget plans "unfair" but the
lack of any sizable action on Tuesday indicates that opposition
to the centre-right government's cuts are limited.
"These pseudo-strikes don't serve the 'anti-austerity' cause
at all," wrote one reader on the website of the daily Le
Parisien, noting that with unemployment high in France, sympathy
for unionised workers was muted.
Another wrote, "I'm ashamed of this country of moaners and
these people who still think it's 1789," referring to the French
Sarkozy's programme of 12 billion euros ($16.4 billion) of
savings for this year and next have sought to avoid unpopular
belt-tightening measures ahead of a 2012 election which the main
opposition Socialists are in a strong position to win.
France's trade unions are still smarting from their defeat
against the government in late 2010, when they failed to force
Sarkozy to abandon his plan to raise the retirement age by two
years to 62 years, leaving them looking weakened.
Some unions, like the more radical Force Ouvriere, decided
to sit out Tuesday's protests.
"Given what happened last year on pensions, we decided that
a day like today will not really change things, so we abstained
from it," Force Ouvriere head Jean-Claude Mailly told i-Tele TV.
A CGT union spokesman said a strike in the power sector had
not cut electricity output capacity, because of the low number
of workers from state utility EDF downing tools.
($1 = 0.732 Euros)
(Additional reporting by Marina de Petris in Marseille and
Muriel Boselli in Paris; Editing by Catherine Bremer)