By Clare Kane
MADRID (Reuters) - Spanish unemployment figures next week may strike a more encouraging note, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told an economic conference on Saturday, holding out some hope for an economy deep in its second year of recession.
Anger is high in Spain over the budget cuts and labor market changes that have left more than six million out of work, and a protest in Madrid on Saturday drew up to several thousand protestors, although that was fewer than similar events in the recent past.
Unemployment in Spain, the euro zone's fourth-biggest economy, jumped to a record 27.2 percent in April, adding to the European debate over whether to ditch policies focused on austerity in favor of efforts to spur economic growth.
"I'm not counting chickens here, however I recommend that you pay attention to unemployment and social security numbers on Tuesday the 4th ... If the patterns we've seen are confirmed they will be clearly encouraging," Rajoy said.
Tackling joblessness is a major challenge for the euro zone's leaders. Germany's Finance Minister warned this week that failure to solve youth unemployment - around a quarter of young people in the bloc cannot find work - could tear Europe apart.
While Spain and twice-bailed-out Greece have fared worst, unemployment hit new highs in both France and Italy in April and 12.2 percent of the currency bloc's workforce is jobless.
Protests against the "troika" of international lenders that has rescued struggling states but demanded painful spending cuts and tax rises were planned in several countries on Saturday but drew muted turnouts compared to previous rallies.
Austerity imposed by the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank (ECB) and European Union is blamed at least in part for the pain felt by families who are deep in debt or have lost their homes after property bubbles burst.
Reuters witnesses said up to several thousand Spaniards gathered at the peak of Saturday's protest in central Madrid. 1,000 or fewer took to the streets in Lisbon, while only a few dozen rallied in austerity-weary Athens, where attendance at protests has dwindled in the absence of much impact on policy.
A march in the southern French city of Toulouse attracted 3,000 people, according to police. Former leftist presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Melenchon told French television the protests across Europe proved people had "a European consciousness, a political consciousness".
Anti-capitalist demonstrators clashed with police for a second day in Germany's financial capital Frankfurt, where they had cut off access to the ECB on Friday.
After cutting interest rates to record lows, the ECB is under pressure to do more to revive the euro zone's sickly economy, with the OECD calling this week for the bank to consider printing money for asset purchases to revive growth.
In Spain, joblessness has grown for seven quarters in a row, leaving 6 million people out of work - more than the population of Denmark and including over half of under 25-year-olds.
Economists say unemployment will rise further this year due to the prolonged contraction, which has depressed consumption and frozen hiring.
Almost one-third of unemployed people have been out of work for more than two years, and two million Spanish households have no one earning a wage.
Rajoy said Spain had left the worst of its crisis behind and unemployment was slowing. He added the centre-right government hoped to lower taxes as soon as possible and would cut income tax by 2015.
"It's not right to feed people's fears and be swept along by irrational thinking. We aren't on the edge of a cliff, this isn't the eve of the apocalypse. There's some turbulence but we can bear it and overcome it successfully," he said.
Rajoy also repeated a call for Europe to do more to move quickly towards the fiscal and political union needed to calm financial markets and guarantee the future of the euro. "We aren't growing because Europe isn't growing," Rajoy said.
(Reporting by Andrei Khalip in Lisbon, Renee Maltezou in Athens and Jean Decotte in Paris; Editing by Catherine Evans and Patrick Graham)
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