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Nationwide French protests put pressure on Sarkozy

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed on Tuesday not to yield to mass street protests after teachers, postal workers and civil servants joined striking rail workers in demonstrations challenging his economic reform plans.

“We won’t give in. We won’t step back,” Sarkozy said in a speech to French mayors that broke an unusually long public silence from the normally hyperactive president.

France’s rail system has been crippled for a week by a strike over pensions, and the wave of protests has widened with a separate strike by civil servants over job reductions and the cost of living and student protests over university reforms.

The protests, the biggest since Sarkozy came to power in May pledging sweeping economic reforms, disrupted schools, trains, postal services and airports and saw hundreds of thousands join protest marches across France.

About 30 percent of France’s 2.5 million state civil servants, including 40 percent of teachers and school staff, were on strike. Another 12-15 percent of regional civil servants and 11 percent of hospital staff also stopped work, the government said.

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“For us this is a significant success which marks an increase in our strength compared with what we’ve seen before,” said Gerard Aschieri, head of teachers union FSU.

The leader of the powerful CGT union, Bernard Thibault, said 700,000 people had marched in demonstrations. Police said 375,000 had taken part.

Sarkozy said he wanted to find a way out of the conflict but he signaled little willingness to compromise.

“Everyone should understand that for me, in such a conflict, there will neither be winners or losers ... but I also say that one should know how to end a strike when the time for negotiations starts,” he said.

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As commuters faced yet another day of transport chaos and the strike headed for its eighth day, Budget Minister Eric Woerth warned that the stoppages risked damaging the economy if they dragged on and Sarkozy said the strikes had to end.

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“I am thinking about those millions of French people who after a day’s work don’t have a bus, a metro or a train to get home and who are tired of being held hostage. I am thinking of those companies that risk having to lay off workers,” he said.

There is wide public support for plans to scrap so-called “special regimes” that allow some people, including many rail workers, to retire on full pension after paying contributions for 2 1/2 years less than the norm of 40 years.

“A small group of people are holding the country hostage. It’s lamentable,” said 56-year-old commuter Guy Cousserant.

But worries about the cost of living and the rising price of petrol, food and housing are widespread, and the government is under pressure to head off a broader wave of discontent that could threaten its economic reform agenda.

Officials have been closely watching student protests that have hit universities in a number of cities, mindful of the chaos caused two years ago when protests over a new youth labour contract got out of hand and produced days of rioting.

Newspaper distributors also began a one-day strike over planned restructuring. Striking energy workers cut production capacity at EDF nuclear plants, the leading energy union said.

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer, Gerard Bon, Kerstin Gehmlich; Editing by Caroline Drees