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Europe's 'holy fools' set the tone for US Occupy Wall Street protesters

From Greece to Italy to Spain, young Europeans, much like the Occupy Wall Street protesters who have followed them, have been pushing for answers to high unemployment and poor representation.

By Staff writer / October 13, 2011

A man wears a heart shaped piece sign that reads "I want public education for everyone" as he takes part in in a demonstration against proposed budget cuts in public education in central Madrid, last week.

Susana Vera/Reuters

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Paris

The economic protests capturing attention outside Wall Street and elsewhere in the United States germinated partly in Europe.

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Before the “99 percent” concept caught fire in New York, a similarly ragtag set of characters, mostly young, were camping out in Spain, Greece, and Italy. They walked across Europe to Brussels with painted faces, formed hundreds of working groups, and generally acted out the ancient role of “holy fools” – outspoken nonconformists – in the modern age. Something is wrong, they agree, but they don’t know what it is. They have no political power. But in spite of it all, they aren’t going to accept an unendingly bleak present or future.

In France, an earnest-eyed newly unemployed young woman, Gaelle Simon, who moved home with her family after working in a Swiss factory, says typically: “If nothing changes, there is no way forward. I strongly feel this. Things have to change.”

Ms. Simon walked to Paris from Orleans. Like many tent city upstarts, she had been depressed. But joining the Don’t-Accept-It group changed that: “I felt I was being controlled by events, by everything, and that I had no say over this. Doing something, thinking independently, I felt a great new sense of energy.”

In tent cities at City University in Paris this summer, or in Madrid and Athens – where youth unemployment tops 40 percent – one heard the tropes of “99 percent” and Occupy Wall St: The economic system is stacked against ordinary people whose taxes are used to bail out banks and states coffers for bad decisions they didn’t make. Meanwhile, European austerity policies are eviscerating jobs.

Some here think they are at a European Woodstock or a transplanted Arab spring. Some young people wear masks – there’s a lot of “radical chic” – but there are also a lot of grandparents. Some talk about changing the world, some just want a job. They live on the Web, follow social networks, connect to kindred spirits in India, in Madison, Wisc., in Tunis, in Israel and Brussels. They don’t discuss strategies of violence. Many predicted this summer their disillusionment would jump the Atlantic and hit Wall Street. Few believed them.

On Oct. 15, there is planned global demonstration.

Utopian? No. I just want some representation.

“We are accused of being utopian.” says François, part of an economy talk shop at City University in September. “But if we were standing here in 1750 and we spoke of the world as it has become in 2011, people would have accused us of being utopian or crazy. OK, some of us want to do away with money, but a lot just want a better representative democracy.”

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