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Massive protests over pension cuts { April 5 2004 }

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APRIL 5, 2004
Massive protests over pension cuts
Germans pour onto the streets to slam Schroeder's Agenda 2010; demonstrators are out in force in Rome and Paris as well

BERLIN - Nearly half a million Germans, many waving labour union flags and blowing whistles, paraded exuberantly through Berlin and other German cities in the largest protest so far against cutbacks in the country's generous social welfare system.

In the capital city, marchers massed at the Brandenburg Gate, carrying signs that read 'Into the trash' to protest against Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's programme known as Agenda 2010.

The year-old programme seeks to gradually reduce pensions, unemployment protection and other benefits that Germans have taken for granted for decades.

Other western European governments are also seeking to restructure decades-old social welfare systems on the grounds that the systems cause economic stagnation and in future years risk bankrupting the governments.

But the efforts are generating a backlash. Marchers in Rome and Paris joined the Germans on Saturday in a cross-border effort to make their resentment known.

The protests were called by trade unions, old-age pensioners' groups and anti-globalisation movements.

The demonstrations followed an appeal by the European Trade Union Confederation for two days of Europe- wide action against the tough reform plans being introduced by governments across Europe.

The German demonstrators charged that Mr Schroeder's Social Democratic Party, which has its roots in the labour movement, has abandoned its constituents to work closely with corporations.

The German parliament this month approved a wide-ranging reform package notably designed to save the state pensions budget from bankruptcy, but at the cost of lower payments for millions of the elderly.

The majority of German voters believe the government's reform drive unfairly targets the elderly and the poor with pension cuts, weaker job protection laws, new co-payments for state health care and tax cuts for top earners.

The protesters are also angered by three years of economic stagnation, and contend the Social Democrats could do more to help.

'There is a lot of money in Germany but it's in the hands of the wealthy,' said Ms Katya Striefler, 42, who came to Berlin from Hanover.

'The rich don't have to pay taxes,' she said.

The scene was similar in Rome and Paris.

Similar numbers marched in cities across Italy last week as well, during a general strike called in protest against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's pension reform plans, which have yet to be approved by Parliament.

In Paris, thousands of demonstrators marched through the city centre to protest against new plans to overhaul the pension system and reform the social security system.

Protesters voiced anger at the plans, which are seen as favouring business at the expense of the most vulnerable citizens.

They chanted 'Chiraffarin, out! We want our money back!' - a play on the names of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. -- Washington Post, AFP

Copyright @ 2004 Singapore Press Holdings.

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