Hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses, factory workers and plumbers have marched through French cities today to demand pay rises and protection for jobs.

The demonstrations were the high point of a nationwide one-day strike called by France's eight main trade unions.

The strike was called to try to persuade the country's president Nicolas Sarkozy and business leaders to do more to help ordinary people overcome the economic crisis.

But the stoppage, billed as a 'Black Thursday', did not bring France to a halt as previous strikes have done. Public transport continued to run, albeit on a reduced and erratic schedule.

'The government has taken measures for banks but today it is the workers who are suffering,' said Charles Foulard, a technician at a refinery run by energy giant Total.

'This crisis comes from the United States, it's the financial bubble that is bursting. It's not for the workers to pay for that,' he said as crowds gathered at the Place de la Bastille in Paris, birthplace of the French Revolution.

In a rare show of unity, the unions drew up a joint list of demands for the government and companies, demanding that Mr Sarkozy drop reforms that they see as a threat to public services and aim stimulus measures at consumers rather than companies.

President Sarkozy admitted tonight that the protesters are right to be concerned about the economic crisis.

Mr Sarkozy said: 'This crisis of an unprecedented scale which is affecting the global economy has provoked in France, as it has elsewhere in the world, legitimate concern.

'This crisis imposes on the public authorities a duty to listen and to talk, but also a great determination to act.

'In this spirit, I will meet labour and employers' organisations in February, in order to draw up a programme of reforms to carry out in 2009 and the means to carry them out properly.'

Govt vows to press ahead with its plans

Specific demands included better pay and conditions for public transport workers as well as dropping plans to reform the health sector, cut 13,500 jobs in education this year and change the status of the state-owned post office.

One in three schoolteachers and rail workers as well as one in four workers at the post office and the electricity company EDF walked off the job, according to management.

Private sector participation was lower. Workers from the carmaker Renault marched in Le Havre while one in six employees at bank LCL were on strike, management said.

For its part the government vowed to press ahead with its reforms.

'The government will not stop reforming a country that needs it,' Education Minister Xavier Darcos said on LCI television.

France's economic woes are less severe than Spain's or Britain's but its jobless rate is rising, hitting 2.07m in November, up 8.5% on the year. Unions say Mr Sarkozy's €26bn stimulus plan is not enough.

'I am protesting against wages that are stagnating, demands on workers that are constantly increasing, and understaffing. It's my first strike in the 20 years I've been on the job,' said Malika Youcef, who works at a state school canteen in Paris.

Unions reported big turnouts at demonstrations in the main cities and smaller towns. More than 100,000 took to the streets of Marseille.

At the Place de la Bastille, hospital workers in white coats mingled with Air France staff carrying model planes and chemical factory workers. An official turnout figure was due later in the day.

The powerful CGT union was out in force with its red balloons filling the horizon and loudspeakers blasting the revolutionary chant 'The Internationale'. Other unions favoured the hippy anthem 'California Dreamin'.