ATHENS, February 19, 2012 (AFP) - Thousands of protestors in Greece -- hundreds of thousands in Spain -- took to the streets Sunday to protest spending cuts they say will force ordinary people to bear the brunt of the debt crisis.
As Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos flew out to Brussels to try to clinch a new 130-billion-euro bailout for the debt-crippled country, 3,500 joined two separate rallies in the Greek capital.
Another 1,200 meanwhile demonstrated in the second city of Thessaloniki.
In Spain, there were protests in more than 50 towns and cities. The largest were in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain's second city, both of which drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, said AFP reporters at the scene.
In Athens, hundreds of police shadowed the latest demonstrations, held a week after parliament passed new austerity measures as rioters torched dozens of buildings in the Greek capital.
A group of youths on Sunday threw stones and bottles at a cordon of riot police guarding the parliament building, who retaliated with bursts of tear gas.
Papademos was set for talks with officials in Brussels ahead of Monday's crucial Eurogroup meeting of eurozone ministers, his office said. A European source told AFP that Papademos would also attend the Eurogroup meeting.
On the streets of Athens however, anger was growing against what many people here resent as stringent measures imposed from abroad.
"We Are Greeks, Merkel and Sarkozy Are Freaks," said one banner on the streets of Athens, referring to the German and French leaders.
The latest government measures include a 22-percent cut in the minimum wage, while pensions of more than 1,300 euros ($1,700) a month will be slashed by 12 percent, heaping further hardship on ordinary Greeks.
"The measures are the worst thing that could have happened. It is outrageous," said pensioner Christos Artemis. "All the people are suffering. Shortly we will be asking ourselves where the bread is."
Unions reject what they brand "unacceptable demands" set by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, saying they violate workers' rights and collective agreements.
But EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said Greece should focus on getting itself out of its economic mess.
"I wish the Greeks would concentrate on rebuilding their state rather than blaming scapegoats outside Greece for their plight," Reding, who is also vice-president of the European Commission, told the Austrian daily Kurier.
In the Spanish capital Madrid, protesters marched under sunny skies in a demonstration organised by the two largest unions, the CCOO and UGT.
At the head of the march was a large banner that read "No to the unfair, inefficient and useless reform" and the crowd chanted "strike! strike! strike!" as it made its way to the central Puerta del Sol square.
"We have to take action," said 44-year-old unemployed construction worker Victor Orgando, who wore a black hat decorated with a red CCOO union sticker.
"They start like this and then they will continue to eliminate rights."
Among the participants were members of the "indignant" social protest movement that sprang up across Spain before local elections in May; and teachers protesting education spending cuts.
"I am here because of the labour reforms but also because of the cuts to public services," said Clemencia Alvarado, a 54-year-old Madrid teacher who wore a green protest T-shirt.
Many of the protestors made a similar point, objecting not just to the latest labour market reform measures but to the government spending cuts aimed at reining in the public deficit.
Under the reform approved by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government on February 11, maximum severance pay is slashed to 33 days' salary for each year worked from 45 days, going back 24 years at most.
It also makes it easier for companies to opt out of sector-wide or country-wide union collective wage agreements.
The government has made the labour market reform, along with steep spending cuts and a plan to clean up the country's banks, a cornerstone of its efforts to revive the economy.
Rajoy defended the labour reform at a congress of his Popular Party in Seville, saying it was "fair, good for Spain and necessary.
"This is the reform that Spain needs to stop it from being the country in Europe that destroys the most jobs. It puts us on the same level as the most advanced countries in Europe," he added.
Unemployment in Spain has tripled since 2007, when it dropped to a low of 7.95 percent a year before the property bubble burst, laying waste to millions of jobs in the construction sector.