- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 1, 2012

MADRID (AP) — On the front lines of May Day protests this year, along with the traditional chants, banners and marches, a gamut of emotions flowed through the crowds.

Anger. Fear. Elation. Satisfaction. Despair.

With Europe’s unemployed denouncing austerity measures and Asia’s laborers demanding higher salaries, Tuesday’s May Day demonstrations were less a celebration of workers’ rights and more a venting of fury over spending cuts, tax hikes and soaring unemployment.

The protests came just days ahead of key elections in Greece and France, whose leaders have acutely felt popular anger over policies many feel are strangling any hopes of economic recovery. The rallies reflected deep pessimism in Spain, whose fragile economy is in the cross-hairs of the European debt crisis.

Yet optimism and national pride emerged too. Over 100,000 turned out in Russia for May Day rallies that celebrated Vladimir Putin’s government. And tens of thousands of workers rallied with joy in France, hoping this would be the last week of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative leadership.

In the United States, demonstrations, strikes and acts of civil disobedience were planned, including the country’s most high-profile Occupy rallies since the anti-Wall Street encampments came down in the fall.

Under a gray Madrid sky that reflected the dark national mood, 25-year Adriana Jaime turned out to march. Jaime speaks three foreign languages and has a masters degree as a translator, but works for what she derided as peanuts in a university research project that has been cut from three years to three months due to a lack of funds.

She sees her future as grim at best.

“I am here because there is no future for the young people of this country,” she said as many marchers carried black-and-white placards with the word NO and a pair of red scissors.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying desperately to cut a bloated deficit, restore investor confidence in Spain’s public finances, lower its 24.4 jobless rate, and fend off fears the country will join Greece, Ireland and Portugal in needing a bailout.

Despite his efforts, Ana Lopez, a 44-year-old civil servant, argued that the government is doing nothing to help workers and that the economic crisis is only benefiting banks.

“Money does not just disappear. It does not fly away. It just changes hands, and now it is with the banks,” Lopez said. “And the politicians are puppets of the banks.”

In France, tens of thousands of workers, leftists and union leaders marked May Day with glee, hoping that a presidential runoff vote Sunday will put a Socialist — Francois Hollande — at the helm for the first time since 1988. Many voters fear Sarkozy will erode France’s welfare and worker protections, and see him as too friendly with the rich.

Sarkozy has allowed himself for too long to manhandle the lower classes,” said Dante Leonardi, a 24-year-old in Paris. “Today we must show … that we want him to leave.”

Hollande has promised high taxes on the rich.

“We are going to choose Hollande because we want something else for France. We want to keep our jobs, we want to keep our industrial jobs, we want a new economy,” said protester Serge Tanguy.

Even in Germany, where the economy is churning and unemployment is at a record low, unions estimated that 400,000 people showed up at over 400 May Day rallies. The DGB union group sharply criticized Europe’s treaty enshrining fiscal discipline and the resulting austerity measures across the continent, calling instead for a stimulus program to revive the eurozone’s depressed economies.

DGB chief Michael Sommer told thousands of workers in Stuttgart that a “Marshall Plan” worth billions of euros (dollars) was needed to stimulate Europe’s economy, the German news agency dapd reported.

In debt-crippled Greece, more than 2,000 people marched through central Athens in subdued May Day protests centered on the country’s harsh austerity program.

In Moscow, the mood was resolutely pro-government, as 100,000 people — including President Dmitry Medvedev and President-elect Putin — took part in the main May Day march.

The two leaders happily chatted with participants as many banners criticized the Russian opposition movement. One read “Spring has come, the swamp has dried up,” referring to Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square, the site of some of the largest opposition demonstrations.

Communists and leftists held a separate May Day rally in Moscow that attracted about 3,000. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov decried international economic troubles, saying that “without socialism, without respect for the working people who create all the main value in this land, it is not possible to get out of this crisis.”

Police arrested 22 people at the rally.

Earlier, thousands of workers protested in the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan and other Asian nations, demanding wage hikes. They said their take-home pay could not keep up with rising food, energy and housing prices and school fees.

An unemployed father of six set himself on fire in southern Pakistan in an apparent attempt to kill himself because he was mired in poverty, according to police officer Nek Mohammed. Abdul Razzaq Ansari, 45, suffered burns on 40 percent of his body but survived.

In Manila, capital of the Philippines, more than 8,000 union members clad in red shirts and waving red streamers marched under a brutal sun to a heavily barricaded bridge near the Malacanang presidential palace, which teemed with thousands of riot police.

Another group of left-wing workers later burned a huge effigy of President Benigno Aquino III, depicting him as a lackey of the United States and big business. Aquino has rejected their calls for a $3 daily pay hike, which he warned could worsen inflation and spark layoffs.

In Indonesia, thousands of protesters demanding higher wages paraded through traffic-clogged streets in the capital, Jakarta, where 16,000 police and soldiers were deployed. Protests were also held in Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

In Athens, Ilias Vrettakos of the ADEDY union summed up the mood.

“(We need) new policies that will satisfy the needs of workers and not of bosses and banks,” he said.

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Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong, Peter Enav in Taipei, Taiwan, Jim Heintz in Moscow, Nicholas Paphitis and Demetris Nellas in Athens, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta and Johanna Decorse in Toulouse, France contributed to this report.