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“I understand the strikers; I tolerate it,” said Fuad Fazlic, 38, a tailor at French luxury label Chanel, as he rolled his bicycle out of the Gare du Nord train station on his way to work.

Mr. Fazlic said he had learned his lesson after strikes in 1995 brought much of France to a standstill for about two months. “I have been biking to work ever since,” Mr. Fazlic said.

Mr. Sarkozy’s conservative allies insist there is no choice but to buckle down and accept the reform. Faced with huge budget deficits and sluggish growth, France must get its finances in better order, they insist. Even with the change, France still would have among the lowest retirement ages in the developed world.

Unions fear the erosion of the cherished workplace benefit and say the cost-cutting ax is coming down too hard on workers.

Mr. Sarkozy’s government is all but staking its chances for victory in presidential and legislative elections in 2012 on the pension reform, which the president has called the last major goal of his term. France’s European Union partners are keeping watch, as they face their own budget cutbacks and debt woes.

Associated Press writers Jean-Marie Godard and Jamey Keaten and APTN producer Sylvain Plazy in Paris contributed to this report.