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Europe's day of protests

Gavin Hewitt | 11:52 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Protesters on Madrid Gran Via, 29 Sep 10

MADRID In the middle of the night groups of strikers in Madrid began fanning out across the city. They were noisy columns, whistling and throwing firecrackers.

Some headed for the bus stations; others went to the wholesale food market; others sat outside banks and businesses. They were there to enforce a general strike. Those who wanted to work were shouted at and denounced as scabs and there were some scuffles.

Later a larger group of strikers headed down the Gran Via. They demanded that shops and businesses close. In one small food store some items were thrown on the floor until the police intervened. All along the street the shutters came down.

The strikers said that the crisis was caused by the bankers and yet it was the workers who were seeing some of their benefits disappear.

One small group of women opened a window and held up a banner with the word "liberty", insisting they wanted to work. They were met by whistles and jeers from the strikers. One man had to be restrained by police when he shouted that the demonstrators were little better than terrorists.

The union tactics were largely successful. Many of Madrid's main streets were effectively closed. The city's Atocha station was almost deserted. I saw very few buses running, but the early morning traffic was brisk and it was clear many people tried to go to work.

The government said electricity consumption was similar to a weekend.

The police, at one point, hemmed in a group of cyclists who they suspected were out to blockade the streets.

The strike seems to have been well-supported by the 17% of workers who belong to unions.

What's far less clear are the views of the majority of Spaniards, many of whom remain silent. I saw people close stores who clearly wanted to work.

When I spoke to the Economy Minister, Elena Salgado, she insisted the government would not back down. Indeed, if it became necessary to take tougher action to reduce the deficit, further austerity measures would be introduced, but she didn't expect that to happen.

And that is the view of most of Europe's governments - that the deficits have to be slashed. There is simply no alternative. The new orthodoxy is that cutting spending will eventually bolster growth and produce new jobs. Ms Salgado put her faith in job creation and in a leaner role for government.

Watching from the sidelines today are the financial markets. They will want to assess how deep and how widespread is the resistance to the age of austerity.


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