Hundreds of thousands of French civil servants and students went on strike yesterday, joining a week-long stoppage by transport workers and ramping up the pressure on French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
State employees, including teachers, postal workers and air traffic controllers, launched their scheduled one-day strike in support of demands for pay increases and an end to job cuts.
Their action coincided with the seventh straight day of a nationwide transport strike that has disrupted rail services across the country and left Paris commuters with a daily battle to get to and from work.
In addition the government faces a campaign by students against a law that allows universities to raise money from private sources, and by magistrates against the closure of local courts.
The cumulative effect of the various protests has left Sarkozy facing one of his biggest tests since taking office in May.
The transport strike was called because of plans to overhaul the "special" pensions systems enjoyed by 500,000 workers mainly in the rail and energy sectors. These allow workers to retire two-and-a-half years earlier than the rest of the population, and Sarkozy has promised to end that.
As well as the social disruption caused by the strike, there has been a damaging economic cost which Finance Minister Christine Lagarde put at between 300 million and 400 million euros a day (US$440 million and US$586 million).
Independent retail outlets have been among the hardest hit. Their drop in revenues of up to 50 percent is on a scale "not seen since May '68" when strikes and student protests swept through France, said Charles Mercer, president of the national clothing federation.
Still hopes have been raised of a possible resolution after unions said they would attend talks today.
The government had previously said it would only enter negotiations once the strike was finished.
However, on Sunday Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand said it would attend today's talks if there was "a back-to-work dynamic."
The president's adviser on social affairs, Raymond Soubie, said he was hopeful that the transport strike could be defused by mid-week, when the talks are due to start.
"I am reasonably positive we can reach a positive outcome, in other words a progressive return to work .... Evidently there are many fewer strikers, as they are a minority now," Soubie said on Monday.
The government has insisted it will not yield on the central point of the pensions reform, but it has suggested pay rises and other inducements. The management of SNCF has offered unions a financial package worth more than 90 million euros a year to accept the change.
Recent opinion polls have suggested that -- in contrast with previous protest movements in France -- a clear majority of the population opposes the strikers.
On government-commissioned poll that found 64 percent in favor of the government's pension reforms, and support for the strike at just 33 percent.