By Estelle Shirbon
PARIS (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of strikers marched through French cities on Thursday to demand pay rises and protection for jobs, challenging President Nicolas Sarkozy to do more for ordinary workers.
While the streets thronged with flag-waving protesters, the one-day strike failed to paralyse the country and there was little evidence of huge support from private-sector employees.
However, labour leaders hailed the strike, which marked the first time France's eight union federations had joined forces against the government since Sarkozy took office in 2007.
"This is one of the biggest days of worker action in the past 20 years," said Francois Chereque, head of the large, moderate CFDT group.
Unions said 2.5 million people took part in dozens of rallies across France, including 300,000 in Paris. Police put the figure at just over a million.
"The government has taken measures for banks but today it is the workers who are suffering," said striker Charles Foulard, a technician at a refinery run by energy giant Total.
"This crisis comes from the United States, it's the financial bubble that is bursting. It's not for the workers to pay for that," he said as crowds gathered at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, birthplace of the French Revolution.
In a rare show of unity, the unions drew up a joint list of demands for the government and companies, demanding that Sarkozy drop reforms that they see as a threat to public services and aim stimulus measures at consumers rather than companies.
GOVERNMENT STANDS FIRM
Specific demands included better pay and conditions for public transport workers as well as dropping plans to reform hospitals, to cut 13,500 jobs in education this year and to change the status of the state-owned post office.
Unlike in 1995 and 2006, when mass strikes forced the governments of the day to back down on reform plans, public transport continued to run on Thursday, albeit on a reduced and erratic schedule, and many schools stayed open.
Perhaps encouraged by that fact, ministers indicated they were not ready to review their 26 billion euro (23.8 billion pound) economic stimulus plan, which is aimed at encouraging industrial investment rather than boosting consumer spending.
"I don't think one can constantly zap and change policy," said Budget Minister Eric Woerth. "We have to keep our cool during this very major storm," he told RMC radio.
France's economic woes are less severe than Spain's or Britain's but its jobless rate is rising, hitting 2.07 million in November, up 8.5 percent on the year, and unions say Sarkozy's policies are not helping ordinary people.
"I am protesting against wages that are stagnating, demands on workers that are constantly increasing, and understaffing. It's my first strike in the 20 years I've been on the job," said Malika Youcef, who works at a school canteen in Paris.
At the Paris march, hospital workers in white coats mingled with Air France staff carrying model planes, chemical factory workers, teachers and plumbers, among other professions.
The powerful CGT union was out in force with its red balloons filling the horizon and loudspeakers blasting the revolutionary chant "The Internationale." Other unions favoured the hippy anthem "California Dreamin.'"
(Editing by Crispian Balmer)