FRANCE - Hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of France today as part of a general strike called by the country’s unions in protest at reforms of the country’s pensions system.

According to organisers more than 250,000 people blocked the streets of Paris, while a 200,000 strong rally marched in France’s second city, Marseille, protesting against government attempts to increase the retirement contribution rates of public and private sector workers.

Bernard Thibault, secretary general of one of France’s largest unions, the CGT, called the demonstrations a huge success, commenting: “We have reached a degree of mobilisation amongst both public and private and private sector workers that has not been seen for many years.”

However, according to reports in the French press, the French government does not seem unduly worried by the protests at present.

Jean-François Copé, a spokesman for the government, said: “We have to keep explaining what is at stake with these reforms because we want to save the retirement system in France. If we don’t reform then the system will crumble.”

Under the proposed reforms, French public sector workers will see their contribution duration increase to 40 years after 2008 to bring it in line with that of the private sector. Both sectors will then see their contribution period rise to 41 years in 2012, increasing to 41.75 by 2020.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has already presented the reform bill to president Jacques Chirac for approval.

Raffarin has been adamant that he will not have the reforms blocked, saying he will listen only to those who have constructive proposals and work only with those who wish to improve the reform to save the country’s pensions system.

France’s legislative Council of Ministers will announce its decision on the reforms on May 28 with the final bill expected to be passed in mid-July.