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More France strike chaos to come

Paris protest
A protest in Paris's Place de la Concorde ended in rioting.

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PARIS, France -- France was bracing for a new round of strikes Thursday as protests against the government's planned pension reform continued to hit travel in major cities.

The protests turned into a riot on Tuesday evening outside the French parliament. Later in the evening, about 350 demonstrators stormed the National Opera and interrupted a performance of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutti."

Workers on several lines on the Paris Metro and the capital's bus system were still out on strike Wednesday while half of the underground system and many buses in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille were at a standstill.

The situation seemed likely to worsen later in the week after four main unions issued a joint communique calling for more mass protests on Thursday.

The unions challenged the centre-right government to hold negotiations on its pension reform plans, which Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin introduced in parliament on Tuesday after months of preparations.

Nonetheless, air traffic was running almost normally Wednesday, airport officials told Reuters. The national railway SNCF said most TGV high-speed trains were operating while two out of three local trains were in service.

The unrest has become a serious threat to Raffarin's year-old government. Mass strikes in 1995 thwarted the last conservative government's attempt to touch pensions and ultimately led to its fall from power in 1997.

Although the pension protests continued, the government did succeed in fending off threats by striking teachers to block this year's baccalaureate examinations, the traditional high school graduation tests.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was drafted in to help stumbling Education Minister Luc Ferry cut a deal that watered down plans to decentralize the national education system.

Teachers, some of whom have been on strike for weeks against the plan they fear will cut jobs, vowed to continue protests but not block the exams which start on Thursday and last about a week.

Unions are seething over Raffarin's plans to make people pay into the pension system for longer to counter a funding crunch as the postwar "baby boom" generation retires.

"With the demographic changes, there are fewer and fewer paying into the system and more and more taking money out of it. This is a necessary reform and everybody knows it," Raffarin told parliament on Tuesday.

Tuesday's public sector strikes slashed train services and caused huge traffic jams across France.

About 40 cities were affected by the strike action, including Marseille and Bordeaux, where garbage piled up as refuse workers were in their eighth day of strikes.

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