Violence broke out between police and demonstrators in Rome on Saturday as tens of thousands took to the streets to protest Italy’s new budget.
“We are laying siege to the city!” chanted the crowd, as a small minority pelted the police and government buildings with water bottles and eggs.
A group of protesters turned over garbage bins and set some of them on fire in front of the Economy Ministry.
Police say they confiscated tear gas canisters and rocks from some of the radicals in the predominantly youthful crowd and found chains stashed away along the route of the march.
Organizers estimated that 70,000 people took part in the protest, while authorities placed the number closer to 50,000.
“With this budget the government is continuing to hurt a country which is already on its knees,” said Piero Bernocchi, leader of the left-wing COBAS trade union that was behind the demonstration.
“Even after austerity has proven to be disastrous, with debt rising, the economy crumbling, and unemployment soaring, they still continue with these policies.”
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Enrico Letta – who is presiding over a fractious Left-Right coalition – presented the 2014 budget that immediately came under a firestorm of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
Left-wingers criticized the document for freezing state sector pay and pensions, while right-wingers and businesses said it failed to stimulate growth with insufficient cuts to Italy’s oppressive corporate taxes.
Italy annually spends around 800 billion euro – a sum it cannot afford as it struggles with a recession that started more than two years ago. The latest budget aims to cut the deficit to 2.5 percent – still worse than most of Europe.
On Friday, a general strike paralyzed transport links in the country and forced the cancellation of flights in and out of Rome.
But Saturday’s protests weren’t just about pay. Some called for the government to abandon an expensive fast-train link with France. Others demanded that Italy provide more social housing. Many bemoaned the country’s treatment of immigrants, who have suffered several tragic incidents in recent months as they attempted to reach the coast of Italy.
Letta has gone on television to defend his government, but dissenters have not been placated and say that even bigger demonstrations will be staged next week.
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