By The Associated Press
MADRID (AP) — Banging drums and waving flags, hundreds of thousands of workers marked May Day in European cities Tuesday with a mix of anger and gloom over austerity measures imposed by leaders trying to contain the eurozone’s intractable debt crisis.
Taking the baton from Asia, where unions demanded wage increases as they transformed the day from one celebrating workers rights to one of international protest, workers turned out in droves in Greece, France and Spain – the latest focus of a debt nightmare that has already forced three eurozone countries to seek financial bailouts.
In the United States, demonstrations, strikes and acts of civil disobedience were planned, including what could be the country’s most high-profile Occupy rallies since the anti-Wall Street encampments came down in the fall.
Under a gray, threatening Madrid sky that reflected the dark national mood, 25-year Adriana Jaime confided she turned out because she speaks three foreign languages and has a masters degree as a translator – but last worked for what she derided as peanuts in a university research project that was to last three years but was cut to three months. Jaime has been unemployed for six months, and sees her future as grim at best.
“I am here because there is no future for the young people of this country,” she said as marchers walked up the city’s main north-south boulevard, protesting health care and education spending cuts and other austerity measures. Many carried black and white placards, with the word NO and a pair of red scissors pictured inside the O.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying desperately to cut a bloated deficit, restore investor confidence in Spain’s public finances, lower the 24.4 jobless rate, and fend off fears it will join Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing a bailout.
Ana Lopez, a 44-year-old civil servant, said May Day is sacred for her but this year in particular, arguing the government is doing nothing to help workers and that the economic crisis is benefiting banks.
“Money does not just disappear. It does not fly away. It just changes hands, and now it is with the banks,” Lopez said. “And the politicians are puppets of the banks.”
In France, tens of thousands of workers, leftists and union leaders rallied ahead of a presidential runoff election Sunday that a Socialist is expected to win for the first time since 1988 – a potential turning point in Europe’s austerity drive.
Anger has emerged during the campaign at austerity measures pushed by European Union leaders and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy. Many voters fear Sarkozy will erode France’s welfare and worker protections, and see him as too friendly with wealthy. Challenger and poll favorite Francois Hollande has promised high taxes on the rich.
“This May Day is more than ever very political … Mr. Sarkozy has allowed himself for too long to manhandle the lower classes of the population, the working classes,” said Dante Leonardi, a 24-year-old at a march in Paris. “Today we must show … that we want him to leave.”
In debt-crippled Greece, more than 2,000 people marched through central Athens in subdued protests. Minor scuffles broke out in Athens when young men targeted political party stands, destroying two and partially burning another. There were no injuries.
Italian Labor Minister Elsa Fornero insisted on the need to reform labor market laws that make it virtually impossible for employers to fire workers in some situations, discouraging hiring. Because of that gridlock and the lack of work in Italy, she said, “It’s not a nice May 1st.”
The German economy is churning and unemployment is at a record low, but unions held May Day rallies anyway. The DGB umbrella union group sharply criticized Europe’s treaty enshrining fiscal discipline and the resulting austerity measures across the continent. The group called instead for a “Marshall Plan” stimulus program to revive the depressed economies of crisis-hit eurozone nations.
Around 100,000 people in Moscow – including President Dmitry Medvedev and President-elect Vladimir Putin – took part in the main May Day march through the city center, though not to protest the government.
Television images showed the two leaders happily chatting with participants on the clear-and-cool spring day. Many banners and placards criticized the Russian opposition movement that has become more prominent in Moscow over the past half-year.
One read “spring has come, the swamp has dried up,” referring to Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square, the site of some of the largest opposition demonstrations in recent months.
Communists and leftists held a separate May Day rally in Moscow that attracted a crowd of about 3,000. Police arrested 22 people at the rally who were wearing masks and refused to remove them during document checks. Police said those arrested were self-styled anarchists.
Earlier, thousands of workers protested in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and other Asian nations, with demands for wage hikes amid soaring oil prices a common theme. They said their take-home pay could not keep up with rising consumer prices, while also calling for lower school fees and expressing a variety of other complaints.
An unemployed father of six set himself on fire in southern Pakistan in an apparent attempt to kill himself because he was mired in poverty, said police officer Nek Mohammed. Abdul Razzaq Ansari, 45, suffered burns on 40 percent of his body but survived.
In the Philippine capital, Manila, more than 8,000 members of a huge labor alliance, many clad in red shirts and waving red streamers, marched under a brutal sun for 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) to a heavily barricaded bridge near the Malacanang presidential palace, which teemed with thousands of riot police, Manila police chief Alex Gutierrez said.
Another group of left-wing workers later burned a huge effigy of President Benigno Aquino III, depicting him as a lackey of the United States and big business.
In Indonesia, thousands of protesters demanding higher wages paraded through traffic-clogged streets in the capital, Jakarta, where 16,000 police and soldiers were deployed at locations including the presidential palace and airports.
There were also protests in Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong.