Greeks Stage General Strike Against Austerity

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Correction Appended

ATHENS -- As workers around the world observed the international Labor Day holiday with demonstrations and rallies, thousands of Greeks walked off their jobs on Wednesday in the second general strike against government austerity measures this year, shutting down tax offices, leaving state hospitals to operate with emergency employees and disrupting public transportation.

The Greek protest came as workers in Asia, including Bangladeshis infuriated by the lethal collapse of a garment factory, demonstrated in cities including the capitals of Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines. In Istanbul, riot police officers sprayed throngs of people with water and tear gas as they gathered for a rally, defying an official ban.

Labor unions in Spain called for rallies in more than 80 cities, news reports said, while protests were also scheduled in Portugal. In France, the bitterly divided labor movement called for hundreds of demonstrations across the country, with rival union confederations holding separate marches.

But, initial reports said, most protests went off quietly, including those in Athens.

On the streets of Paris, the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, held its annual May 1 march through the city center, seeking to draw support from disaffected voters at a time when French growth has faltered, unemployment is at record levels and the Socialist government is caught between demands from the right for greater cuts in public spending and complaints from the left that it is not socialist enough.

Ms. Le Pen's supporters waved French red, white and blue flags outside the Palais Garnier opera house in central Paris. She said the country was "sinking in an absurd policy of endless austerity."

Inveighing against the influence of big business, the European Union in general and Germany in particular, she ascribed French woes to "always saying yes to Brussels; to Berlin, of course; and in all circumstances to the magnates of high finance." The crowd seemed smaller than it was a year ago, when the country was seized with election fever. Since then, however, many Europeans have sensed a deepening malaise with no prospect of a rapid return to a sense of well-being.

Such are Europe's woes that the newly elected Pope Francis urged business and political leaders on Wednesday to do more to create jobs.

"And here I think of the difficulties that, in various countries, today afflict the world of work and businesses," he told tens of thousands of people gathered for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.

"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," the pope said. "I wish to extend an invitation to solidarity to everyone, and I would like to encourage those in public office to make every effort to give new impetus to employment."

The nationwide walkout in Greece was called by the country's two main labor unions, which represent two and a half million workers and have led resistance to three years of economic reforms that have cut salaries and pensions while increasing taxes.

With public anger giving way to resignation after a seemingly inexorable cycle of belt tightening in exchange for foreign rescue loans, the unions called for mass participation in the strike to protest "a catastrophic austerity drive" that has driven unemployment above 27 percent -- the highest rate in the European Union -- and to slightly less than 60 percent among those younger than 25.

The unions' appeal failed to draw a large crowd, however, with about 10,000 Greeks taking to the streets of the capital, according to police estimates, for a demonstration that was both peaceful and one of the smallest in recent months. "There were no problems," a police spokesman said as roads reopened to traffic and municipal garbage trucks swept discarded protest leaflets and coffee cups.

Although the strike brought much of Greek daily life to a halt on Wednesday, public transit services were running on a limited basis to allow Greeks to join rallies. In Athens, as in other major cities, police units were out in force to guard against violence that has marred demonstrations near the Parliament building in the past.

Ferries remained in ports and trains in depots, but flights operated normally because air traffic controllers did not join the strike.

The strike came just a few days after officials in the euro zone approved the release of 2.8 billion euros, or $3.7 billion, in rescue financing for Greece after Parliament ratified a new raft of economic reforms, including a politically contentious decision to lay off 15,000 civil servants by the end of next year.

The financing had been due in March but was delayed after talks between the government and officials of Greece's troika of foreign lenders -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- broke down over the troika's demands for the civil service cuts.

The country's governing coalition, which has come under strain as it pushes its painful austerity agenda, must now enforce agreed-upon reforms, laying off 2,000 civil servants by the end of June and pushing forward a stalled project to privatize state assets. It faces strong opposition by its main political rival, the leftist party Syriza, which wants Greece to renege on its loan agreement with the troika and is neck and neck in opinion polls with the conservative New Democracy, the head of the shaky three-party coalition.

The European Union and the International Monetary Fund have extended to Greece two foreign bailouts worth $317 billion over the past three years, meting out the aid in installments in exchange for austerity measures and reforms.

Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting from Rome.

Correction: May 1, 2013, Wednesday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article overstated the effect of the worker strike in Greece. Schools were already closed for the Greek Orthodox Easter break; they did not close because of the strike.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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