Mass austerity protest across Europe


ATHENS – Thousands of workers across southern Europe protested against spending cuts at May Day rallies yesterday ahead of weekend elections in Greece and France where voters are expected to punish leaders for austerity.

Unions in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and France are using the traditional marches to express anger over a savings drive across the euro zone, aimed at shoring up public finances but criticised for forcing countries deeper into recession.

Italian demonstrators briefly clashed with police in riot gear in Turin and thousands marched in the central city of Rieti to listen to leaders of the country’s three main unions denounce prime minister Mario Monti’s reforms.

In Madrid tens of thousands headed in the rain to the main square waving signs opposing government cuts, while in Athens about 5,000 workers, pensioners and students marched with banners reading “Revolt now” and “Tax the rich”.

Greece will vote on Sunday in a parliamentary election that risks derailing the international bailout keeping the country afloat by punishing the parties that backed the package.

“Our message will be stronger on Sunday,” said Maria Drakaki (45), a public sector worker whose salary has been cut. “There’s no way I’m voting for one of the two main parties.”

Also on Sunday French voters seem poised to choose policies favouring economic growth over austerity with Socialist François Hollande leading President Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls. .

The marches come against a backdrop of growing frustration towards austerity that more fiscally conservative northern euro zone members say is necessary to bring deficits down to meet EU limits and end the debt crisis. Unemployment has soared and loan defaults are on the rise.

In Italy there are frequent reports of suicides as people lose their jobs or their businesses fail. A right-wing group in the northern Emilia-Romagna region plastered posters outside several cemeteries reading “Happy May Day, workers who have committed suicide”.

Protesters in Turin shouted down the local mayor as he was leading a parade, accusing him of not doing enough to create jobs in the city that is the home of Italian car giant Fiat.

In Portugal, thousands of people rallied in Lisbon, some with placards saying “Stop the robbery, no more stolen wages”.

The 700,000-strong CGTP union, which refused to sign a pact on labour market reforms required under a €78 billion EU/IMF bailout this year, rallied across Portugal under the slogan “Against exploitation and impoverishment, for a policy change”.

“Austerity is not a solution for Portugal or Europe,” said João Proença, chief of the UGT union, the second biggest.

“The pivotal issue is to promote job creation.”

Portugal is implementing tough austerity measures, which have deepened its recession and pushed unemployment to all-time highs of around 15 per cent.

Spain’s jobless rate rose to near 25 per cent in the first quarter, more than double the EU average, as the economy sank into recession. Some economists, including those at the International Monetary Fund, have questioned whether deep cuts should be made at the expense of growth. – (Reuters)