ATHENS (Reuters) — Thousands of workers across southern Europe protested against spending cuts in May Day rallies on Tuesday, before 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 criticized 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 the 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 around 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."
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy will compete with trade unions to draw the biggest crowd, hoping to steal the limelight from their annual street march before the second round of a presidential election on Sunday.
French voters seem poised to choose policies favouring economic growth over austerity with Socialist Francois Hollande leading Sarkozy in the polls. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose supporters are key for the result, told her party's annual rally on Tuesday she would cast a blank vote.
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 European Union (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, the two main labour unions expect tens of thousands of workers to join rallies in the capital Lisbon and other main cities.
The 700,000-strong CGTP union, which refused to sign a pact on labour market reforms required under a £78-billion (C$102-billion) EU/International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout earlier this year, will demonstrate under the slogan "Against exploitation and impoverishment, for a policy change."
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 IMF, have questioned whether deep cuts should be made at the expense of growth.
Poor getting poorer
In Greece, repeated rounds of cuts have slashed wages and pensions and deepened a recession that is now in its fifth year. Private sector wages shrunk by one-quarter last year alone and one Greek youth in two is out of work.
"These politicians cannot help us. They have nothing new to tell us. They approved the austerity package and the bailout. We are turning our backs on them," said Dina Bitsi, 58, a pensioner with two unemployed sons.
The two biggest Greek parties, the Socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy, are expected to struggle to win enough support to renew their pro-bailout coalition. Much of the support that the two parties, which have ruled Greece for decades, once enjoyed has now shifted to an array of smaller anti-bailout parties riding high on voter discontent over the austerity measures.
Greece's lenders have said if the country fails to stick to the reforms pledged in return for £130 billion (C$169 billion) in aid, the country might be forced to abandon the euro. Most Greeks want to keep the single currency, despite opposing the austerity measures they have been forced to endure since the country's first EU/IMF bailout in 2010.
"We want to stay in the European Union and the euro. We realize there is a crisis but it's unacceptable that even now the rich have become richer and the poor poorer," said Bitsi.