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PARIS (Reuters) - French unions staged nationwide strikes on Thursday in protest at government plans to raise the retirement age to 62 and reform state pensions, and organizers predicted more than a million workers would take to the streets.
The day of action was a key test of strength between the unions and President Nicolas Sarkozy, who needs to slash a ballooning budget deficit and public debt to help the country maintain its precious triple-A sovereign debt rating.
Thousands of transport workers walked off the job, hitting train, plane, metro and bus services, while civil servants, teachers and some private sector staff also went on strike.
Around 200 demonstrations were planned across France during the day, with unions looking to fill the streets to push their demand that the government drops plans to lift the minimum retirement age to 62 from 60 in 2018.
Initial indications from large cities such as Marseille and Lyon suggested that turnout was very high, with the main rally of the day set to kick off in Paris in the afternoon.
"We are all in the same boat," said Jean-Luc Mariano, a docker who joined a march in the port city of Marseille.
"It is already hard enough working at the age of 56 in the docks. To add yet more years to that means we will never get to enjoy our retirement," he added.
At a previous union day of protest in May some 395,000 protesters took to the streets according to police figures. The unions put the number at one million.
"It is important to show that turnout is much larger than in recent weeks, which will show that workers are starting to realize this reform is unfair," Francois Chereque, head of the moderate CFDT union, told RTL radio.
The government unveiled its planned overhaul of the pay-as-you-go pensions regime last week, saying that without major changes the system would run up annual deficits of 100 billion euros ($134.2 billion) by 2050.
Although a retirement age of 62 is still lower than in many of France's neighbors, it breaks a significant taboo in a country where many see retirement at 60 -- introduced by a Socialist government in 1983 -- as their right.
The SNCF national rail service said nearly 40 percent of its employees had gone on strike, while the education ministry said 20 percent of teachers took part and state energy company EDF reported that 16 percent of its workers had joined the dispute.
France's unions say Thursday's demonstrations will be a foretaste of the protests they plan for September when the reform is due to go to parliament for approval.
Sarkozy has spent considerable political capital on the pension drive, which is likely to be the government's last big reform before his expected re-election bid in 2012.
He has promised to keep up dialogue with unions and has not ruled out possible changes to parts of the reform, but has made clear he will not back down on retirement at 62.
The opposition Socialist party has said it will overturn the reform should it win power in 2012.
A poll by BVA showed that two French people out of three supported the union protests but a survey, carried out by Ifop for Le Figaro daily on Wednesday, said 58 percent supported the idea of lifting the retirement age.
Editing by Crispian Balmer and Paul Taylor