Anti-austerity protests fall flat in much of Europe

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 29, 2012 2:27 PM
Anti-austerity protests fall flat in much of Europe

PARIS (Reuters) - Several thousand people took to the streets of France on Wednesday to protest against European austerity measures on the eve of an EU summit, but elsewhere in Europe the protest fell flat.

Disruption was limited as demonstrations organized by unions across the continent failed to gain momentum. Only a few hundred people protested in crisis-hit Greece while some 450 demonstrators gathered outside the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels, where European leaders will meet to sign a "fiscal treaty" committing them to balanced budgets.

In Paris, some 9,000 demonstrators marched from Bastille square under the banner "enough is enough" to condemn belt-tightening measures.

"We are saying to the leaders, 'You cannot push ahead with European integration with so little consultation with the unions and, more broadly, with the people,'" Bernard Thibault, the leader of France's powerful CGT union, told Reuters television.

He denounced "a treaty that institutionalizes austerity."

One banner read "Too Much Austerity," another said, "We are all Greeks."

A protest in the southern French city of Marseilles drew some 2,700 protesters, police said, while the western cities of Nantes and Bordeaux also saw thousands take to the streets.

Elsewhere in Europe, the union-led protests met with muted response. In Brussels, in addition to the few hundred protesters outside the EU building, between 1,000 and 2,000 people gathered outside the central bank, police said.

With Britain and the Czech Republic opting out, 25 nations are expected to sign the fiscal pact during the two-day summit.

"Our message has to go through tomorrow," Bernadette Segol, General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, told Reuters. "We need to convince each government that a different course is necessary."

In Athens, where tough EU-IMF mandated cutbacks are expected to produce a fifth year of recession, only a few hundred people gathered outside parliament before being driven off by icy rain, while in Italy unions appeared to ignore the call.

In Spain, union protests were overshadowed by student demonstrations that drew tens of thousands of marchers across the nation to protest deep cuts in education spending.


French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has imposed three rounds of belt-tightening in the past year, freezing wages in some public administrations but steering clear of harsher measures seen elsewhere in Europe.

Unions had said some 160 protest marches were planned across the country, with the CGT warning of walkouts in some public services and transport. But the impact of the protests was slight, partly due to a dispute between two of the biggest trade unions.

Two out of three commuter trains in the greater Paris region were running. The high-speed train link between Paris and the regions was working almost normally, with minor disturbances to trains to the southwest and the southern city of Nice, while three out of four regional trains were running, according to the SNCF national rail company.

The CGT had argued for a major strike against Sarkozy's proposal to hike sales taxes in order to cut payroll charges - a measure he says will make labor costs more competitive with Germany.

The larger CFDT, however, said it would not support attempts to give the protests an overtly political tone so close to the first round of France's presidential election on April 22.