Full-blooded chants echoed out across the Place de la Bastille in Paris, with the symbol of the French Revolution at the centre of a day of anti-government demonstrations.
"Black Thursday" was hailed by union leaders as the country’s "biggest workers’ protest in 20 years" after marchers in cities across France voiced their anger at the government’s response to their economic plight and members of eight unions joined in the industrial action.
While the effectiveness of the action was called into question when the transport network suffered less disruption than had been expected, labour leaders claimed that up to 2.5 million people had joined in the protests, with at least 300,000 on the streets in the capital.
Francois Chereque, head of the CFDT union, said: "We have not seen action on this scale for two decades. It is a cry of anger."
Although the interior ministry said that the protesters numbered just over one million, they were the biggest since Mr Sarkozy came to power in 2007 and on a par with the last huge demonstration, in March 2006, which hastened the exit of the prime minister of the time, Dominique de Villepin.
In the Place de la Bastille, booming megaphones mingled with French rock music and barbecue smoke as an ocean of protesters from the public and private sector marched to call on President Sarkozy to do more to protect jobs and wages, and change tack in fighting the economic crisis.
"Sarkozy gives money to the people who created this crisis, but what about the man in the street?" shouted Antoine Laurent, 20, a history student at the Sorbonne University.
Behind him a group chanted: "Stop the sackings, it’s not up to workers to pay for bankers."
One banner read: "360 billion euros for banks, and we are keeling over."
Another read: "Hey Sarkozy, now can you see the strike!" This was an allusion to the French president’s famous claim last year: "Now when people go on strike, nobody notices."
After a day of peaceful protests, violence erupted on the fringes of the Paris protest. Dozens of young men wearing scarves across their face were charged down by riot police after throwing stones and bottles, tearing up manhole covers and lighting fires in the Opera district.
Three-quarters of French people, the opposition Socialists and all the main trade unions backed the industrial action. Officially, it was against the worsening economic climate amid rising joblessness in France and at what unions believe to be the government’s poor handling of the crisis.
But as in most French demonstrations, the demands were far more eclectic. One banner read simply "Domenech resign" – a familiar demand for a new coach to restore the national football team to its past glory.
The bulk of protesters came from across the public sector, from postal workers to court officials and a huge contingent of teachers marching against Mr Sarkozy’s plan not to replace the 13,500 staff expected to retire or quit their jobs in the education sector this year.
But there were many employees from the private sector, including car plant workers but also helicopter pilots, supermarket cashiers and even ski lift operators.
Manuel Romero, a maintenance worker at Disneyland Paris, said: "Sarkozy says he wants to re-found capitalism, but he’s giving to the rich instead of the poor. We want all wages to be raised, now, and a new economic recovery plan to boost consumption."
His last point was echoed by the main unions, who accuse Mr Sarkozy of leaving out measures to boost purchasing power in his 26-billion-euro (£23.6 billion) recovery plan, concentrating instead on investment.
France is now tipping into recession and unemployment is soaring, hitting 2.07 million in November and up 8.5 per cent over the year.
The president has promised to "listen" to people’s concerns but to push on with his reform programme and not to change it according to "those who shout loudest".
The unions are divided as to whether to call other stoppages in the coming days or weeks, and will meet on Monday to decide on their next step.
The strikes caused the cancellation of a third of flights from Paris’s Orly airport and around one in ten from Roissy Charles de Gaulle.
More than 60 per cent of national TGV trains and three quarters of metro trains were running, but suburban and provincial services were harder hit. The Eurostar suffered no disruption.
Eric Woerth, the budget minister, said that the government would stick to its chosen course of action. "Like the American airline pilot who recently managed to land his Airbus on the Hudson, in moments of crisis the government must keep its sang froid," he said.
Meanwhile the Socialists, still recovering from a bitter party leadership battle in November, tried to win back credibility in the street. "You’re here at last," shouted out one unionist to the new Socialist leader, Martine Aubry. She replied: "Deep down, he’s right. When we lost our soul a bit, we weren’t in the street. Today we’ve got our values back."
On the sidelines of the Paris protest, she accused Mr Sarkozy of "pushing blindly ahead even after he took us into recession through his policies well before the financial crisis began."
Meanwhile, Mr Sarkozy was widely criticised for allegedly removing a top French regional official from his post for failing to prevent a rowdy protest during a presidential visit.
"It is scandalous that a representative of the state can be used like a Kleenex," said a local council leader from Mr Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party. An opposition leader called the move an "unacceptable abuse of power".
The president was reportedly outraged that Jean Charbonniaud, the prefect or state representative in the northern La Manche region, had not deployed enough police to keep 3,000 protesters at bay when he visited the area this month.
Mr Charbonniaud was subsequently removed from his position and this week appointed to a post in Paris, in a clear demotion.