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Italians may feel they've seen this performance before. It last happened just across the sea from them in Greece. Greek officials imposed austerity measures and got massive protests for their trouble. Today, Italy's parliament starts debating austerity measures. The new prime minister, Mario Monti, wants to reduce his country's reliance on debt. But popular anger is growing over spending cuts, tax hikes and pension changes. Here's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli.
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SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Anti-austerity protests are popping up everywhere. On a shopping street decked out with Christmas decorations, demonstrators wear masks and Santa Claus costumes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN ONE: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: A woman on a loudspeaker shouts, we're going to occupy Christmas and protest against all the new measures. People can't buy any presents this year because they have to pay all the new taxes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN TWO: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of women throughout Italy took to the streets to rally against a package of measures they say do nothing to help women juggle work and the family. Lack of day care and services for the elderly means that 50 percent of Italian women stay home - one of the lowest female employment rates in the Western world. And sociologist Chiara Saraceno says there's no trade-off in raising women's retirement age.
CHIARA SARACENO: You cannot say that you want more women in the labor force and that they work longer, but at the same time you not only do not develop services which are already scarce, but even cut the resources for it.
POGGIOLI: Another criticism leveled against Monti's austerity package is that it does not do enough to combat one of Europe's highest tax evasion rates. According to official statistics, it's close to 18 percent of GDP, or $300 billion annually. Particularly galling to many Italians is that Monti's new property tax will not be applied to church-owned property, even if used for commercial purposes.
At another demo, activists put stickers on church-owned buildings in Rome.
GIANFRANCO MASCIA: (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: Gianfranco Mascia points to the Hotel Ponte Sisto. It's a church-owned building, he says, and we would like to know why this 4-star hotel will be exempt from paying the new property tax, while we have to pay it.
Francesco Benetti says if taxed, church real estate could provide a revenue of up to one billion dollars.
FRANCESCO BENETTI: The church owns a lot, just in Rome there are 300 of structures that could be taxed but they are not. Activities like shops, like restaurants, like hotels, they are not churches. They are not places of God.
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POGGIOLI: The strongest protest comes from Italy's three major unions, which for the first time in six years overcame divisions and staged a joint general strike. Hundreds of workers rallied outside parliament.
Sixty-year-old Emanuela Conforto was given an incentive by her employer to retire early and get her pension next year. But, now the new measures force her to wait another five to six years. So, she's without work and without a pension.
EMANUELA CONFORTO: (Through Translator) How am I going to live? My 33-year-old son can't find a job. My mother has a pension of $675 a month. I have a mortgage. I have to help out both my mother and my son, so how are we going to manage?
POGGIOLI: Susanna Camusso, leader of the biggest union, addressed the crowd of angry workers.
SUSANNA CAMUSSO: (Through translator) This government promised it would pursue fairness, rigor, and growth. But all we see is rigor, and it's directed against the lowest salaries. There is no rigor for the wealthy. It's time for them to start paying. Otherwise this country will never take off.
POGGIOLI: Prime Minister Monti has justified the absence of a special tax on the wealthy, saying it would simply lead to capital flight. But his government faces more protest strikes: transport workers tomorrow, bank workers on Friday and public sector employees on Monday.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.