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It's kickoff for the French strike season

Americans have Labor day — and the French have the kickoff of "strike season." 

This time last year, I reported on this most Gallic tradition — which also serves to tell us that the fall has arrived — under the headline "A Kinder, Gentler Strike Season.”   

Last fall, I was surprised that the season’s first demo was so festive — a sign that France was dealing rather well with the financial crisis, compared with neighbors England and Spain, that is. Also, the strikes were notable for their lack of a good, obvious motive.

Sure, some people, mainly students, were worried about high unemployment — sadly, the French have been worried about that since the early 1980s. 

This year, it's obvious that strikers have a motive — and consequently, the strikes have a harder edge.

The first sign is that they have not waited long after the summer break to go on strike — kickoff is a month earlier than last year.

And the turnouts were massive. An estimated 2 million people took the streets of Paris, while hordes of angry workers also demonstrated and chanted in other French cities.  

And this time around, demonstrators were united by one clear goal: to fight the retirement reform — a plan to raise the legal retirement age from 60 to 62.

This does not sit well with the French. Most of them recognize that the current system is no longer financially viable, but many of them want to ensure the richest segment of the population keeps France’s generous government pension system alive ... for everyone. 

This unpopular reform, along with the Bettencourt affair, which involves President Nicolas Sarkozy’s labor minister Eric Woerth, and the crackdown on Roma immigrants (which has prompted outrage from the U.N. to the Vatican), could signal a tough political season for Sarkozy and his administration. 

Despite the anger and frustration at Sarkozy’s policy, Parisian demonstrators also managed to enjoy this sunny day out.

Tonight, the streets of the capital reminded me of London’s Notting Hill Carnival, with youngsters dancing to reggae blasting from union trucks. Union members also plastered a poster near the Saint Lazare train station that reads: “Government Funded Pension: do you think you are covered?”

Union sign that reads, "Government Funded Pension: do you think you are covered?"
(Ben Barnier/GlobalPost)