But Sarkozy refused to back down, saying the country needed reforms "to meet the challenges imposed on it by the world".

 

"These reforms have been too long in coming... After so much hesitation, so much procrastination, so many backward steps, we will not surrender and we will not retreat," he said.

 

Thousands on streets 

 

Al Jazeera's Tim Friend, reported from Paris that thousands of unhappy civil servants and other workers joined transport workers in the strike on Tuesday.

 

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Transport workers are angry over proposed increases in the retirement age while civil servants have protested against Sarkozy's plan not to replace some retiring workers, citing a diminishing purchasing power.

 

The French public, however, seemed to side with the president, who says that pension rights should be equal for all.

 

According to the CGT union, some 700,000 people including teachers, customs agents and tax inspectors took to the streets on Tuesday around France, but police estimates were about half of that.

 

The rail strike has been shown to be unpopular with the French public in opinion polls, but there is also pressure on the government to resolve the matter.

 

Etienne Schweisguth, a researcher at the Sciences Po school of political sciences in Paris, says Sarkozy is poised to win the battle of wills, which will weaken the opponents of reform.

 

"If he wins this first test of strength then a bastion will have given way. Unions, workers, leftists will be less disposed to strike in future."