"The country is literally is on hold," Yousouffa said.

"Things are functioning, some classes in school are open, but all public offices are closed, 30 per cent of the transport and the trains are working."

'Call for help'

Francois Chereque, of the CFDT union, said the protests were "the biggest workers' rallies in 20 years".

"We refuse to pay for the capitalist crisis," read one banner at a protest in the central city of Lyon.

Another said: "The capitalist economy is sick... let's let it die".

Yousouffa said protesters believe the government should have taken them into account in its rescue package.

"It's really a country that is calling for help," she said.

The one-day strike, dubbed "Black Thursday", shut down rail and Metro lines in Paris, choked public services and left millions of schoolchildren without teachers.

Earlier in the day, commuters affected by the strike appeared resigned to the action with some expressing support for it.

"I'm tired and frozen after waiting half-an-hour on the platform," Sandrine Dermont, a 34-year-old secretary, said at a train station.

"But I'm prepared to accept that, when it is a movement to defend our spending power and jobs. I will join the street protests during my lunch break."

Pierre Rattier, another commuter, said: "I am not against the fact that people demonstrate to defend their interest and their benefits as they say, but is this really the best time to do it considering what is going on right now with the economic crisis?"

Government response

France's eight national unions have backed the strike, drawing up a list of demands for the government and French companies, who they have accused of using the crisis as an excuse to lay off workers and cut costs.

But the the action is not expected to threaten government stability.

Yousouffa said the government is determined to "press on with its reforms and will not change its course".

Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president, has so far remained quiet over the strike, with aides saying he is watching developments from the Elysee Palace.