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Across debt-stricken Europe, austerity's bite is felt

From French bankers and Italian politicians to British strikers and the average Greek, everyone in Europe is feeling the cost-cutting brought on by the euro debt crisis.

By Staff writer / December 16, 2011

A demonstrator shouts antigovernment slogans outside the Parliament, in front of a riot police cordon during a demonstration to protest against the austerity policy in Paris, Tuesday.

Michel Euler/AP

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Paris

After two years of crisis and bank debt in Europe, the roaring euro party is over.

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Greeks are emptying their bank accounts, Italians are proposing that the Roman Catholic Church begin to pay nearly $1 billion in property taxes on lucrative hotels and businesses, and in the UK, protesters sans jobs have settled near 10 Downing in the wake of the nation’s biggest general strike in years.

Spain has seen well-dressed panhandlers in Madrid. The Netherlands report higher bankruptcies and lower exports. French banks are cutting thousands of jobs. And in bailed-out Portugal, two religious and two civil holidays – weekdays off – will now fall on weekends, even as healthcare costs there have suddenly doubled in many hospitals.

All across Europe, the severity of belt-tightening and public anger has brought a new stream of “austerity stories” to the fore: job cuts and their effect, new instances of ethnic hate, worry about social stability.

Rising right-wing violence

The majority of these stories flow out of Europe’s southern tier, the “less competitive” economies.

Two Senegalese street traders in a Florence market were shot and killed Dec. 13 by a right-wing fanatic and three wounded. Higher piles of uncollected garbage sit on Greek streets and there’s an increase of drugs and crime there. Immigrants who used to be welcome labor five years ago in Greece, Italy, and especially in Spain, are now subject to heavy ID checks and public frowns, and there are more spasms of violence by vigilante groups. At times, the surly climate means that “Anyone who might pass for migrant runs the risk of being beaten up,” says Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch Europe.

“There’s a gloomy mood… in ordinary neighborhoods that I visit… worry about jobs, benefits, social security and the cost of living,” says Pap Ndiaye, social historian at the Paris School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences. “On top of that, minorities are concerned about backlash or adding problems to the general population. A few years ago, minorities with degrees were leaving France for Great Britain but now the UK is no longer so hospitable. Now we are seeing a phenomenon of looking to the Americas. More professionals are moving to Montreal, for example… with no plans to come back to France.”

Belt-tightening across the spectrum

To ease austerity, Greece is selling ferryboats to Turkey and what appear to be third-world items like string, used auto parts, and TV antennas to improbable places like the Bahamas and the Marshall Islands. Italy this week said it will release some 3,300 prisoners with less than 18 months on their sentence –  remanded to their homes – to save an estimated $500,000 a day.

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