MADRID (Reuters) — Workers hit by lower living standards and record high unemployment staged May Day protests across Europe on Wednesday, hoping to persuade their governments of the case for easing austerity measures and boosting growth.
In the debt-laden euro zone countries of Spain, Greece, Italy and France, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand jobs and an end to years of belt-tightening.
In Spain, where the economy has shrunk for seven consecutive quarters and unemployment stands at a record 27 per cent, thousands of people snaked up Madrid's Gran Via central shopping street carrying placards reading "austerity ruins and kills."
"The future of Spain looks terrible; we're going backwards with this government," said former civil servant Alicia Candelas, 54, who has been without a job for two years.
Unions said 50,000 people marched in Madrid and more than one million took part in peaceful rallies across the country. There was no independent estimate, and police did not give a figure.
Trains and ferries were cancelled in Greece, and bank and hospital staff walked off the job after unions there called a 24-hour strike, the latest in a string of protests in a country in its sixth year of recession.
About 1,000 police officers were deployed in Athens, but the demonstration passed off peacefully, with about 5,000 striking workers, pensioners and students marching to parliament holding banners reading: "We won't become slaves, take to the streets!".
Earlier, hundreds of protesters affiliated with the Communist KKE party made a clenched-fist salute on Syntagma Square, scene of clashes between police and protesters during previous protests.
"The economy won't be resurrected by the bankrupt banks and the corrupt political system but by the workers and their fight," Alexis Tsipras, leader of the anti-bailout Syriza party, told protesters.
Harsh measures to cut Greece's budget deficit are a condition of its international bailout, imposed on Athens to save it from a chaotic bankruptcy and euro exit.
But there were fewer protesters on the streets than last year when 100,000 marched on Syntagma Square. The May 1 holiday falls just before Greek Orthodox Easter, so public schools were shut and many workers had left for holidays.
Austerity vs. growth
Four euro zone countries — Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus — have received sovereign bailouts. With little or no sign of growth in the currency bloc, the European Central Bank is expected to cut interest rates to a record low of 0.5 per cent at its meeting on Thursday.
But analysts say that alone will do little to lift the zone out of recession, and several governments are now openly discussing policies to try to boost growth.
Italy's new Prime Minister Enrico Letta told Germany on Tuesday that his government would meet its budget commitments but expected Europe to drop its austerity mantra and do more to lift growth.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen by many in southern Europe as the champion of the belt-tightening approach, struck a conciliatory tone, saying "budget consolidation and growth need not be contradictory."
Letta met French President Francois Hollande on Wednesday, expecting a more favourable hearing for his focus on growth.
France's two biggest unions, split over Hollande's labour law reforms, held separate May 1 marches. Hollande's approval rating has dropped as low as 25 per cent as cuts bite and unemployment has risen.
German unions said about 425,000 people took part in more than 400 events around the country.
Michael Sommer, head of the DGB federation of German labour unions, said the German government should have more solidarity with the rest of the euro zone.
"We cannot allow this continent to be 'kaputtgespart' — forced to save so much that it breaks apart," he said.
Tens of thousands marched in Italy's major cities to demand action to tackle unemployment — at 11.5 per cent overall and 40 per cent among the young. Demonstrators in Turin threw hollowed eggs filled with black paint at police.
Pope Francis made a May Day appeal for governments to tackle unemployment, as "work is fundamental to the dignity of a person".
"I think of how many, and not just young people, are unemployed, many times due to a purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice," he told a crowd in St. Peter's Square.
Thousands of people marched in Lisbon calling for an end to austerity dictated by Portugal's European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout, a day after the government said there would be more spending cuts.
Traditional May Day marches were also taking place outside the euro zone. In Russia, about 1.5 million people were expected to take part in parades, a fraction of the millions that used to march in Soviet times.
In Istanbul, Turkish riot police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse crowds gathering for a rally. A Reuters photographer said at least six people were injured.
Turkish authorities often use force to prevent the rally in the city centre, having this year denied trade unions permission to march on Taksim Square, saying construction work there would make it too dangerous.