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Occupy Europe: How a generation went from indifferent to indignant

Occupy Europe? From Madrid to Athens, young people facing a bleak future are casting doubt on European identity.

(Page 4 of 8)



The Germans built a competitive export economy and don't want to pay for what they see as the irresponsible fiscal policies of southern "siesta economies." Greece (twice), Ireland, and Portugal have needed bailouts, and it isn't over. Spain and Italy are not out of the red-ink woods. Youth riots in London this summer may have been a singular, compulsive event, but they hold a warning.

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Europe's political elites are under attack from radical right populist parties that target Muslims and immigrants; mainstream politics accommodates views seen as extreme a few years ago. "Inward looking" is a popular phrase for Europe-watchers. New global powers like Brazil and China aren't necessarily taken with European models of international conduct. The broad vision of Europe's postwar leaders seems in short supply.

"We need a Franklin Roosevelt and what we've got are a bunch of Herbert Hoovers," says Karim Emile Bitar, at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

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Anciently in Madrid, Puerta del Sol is where all roads led out to Europe. The square is framed by a pinkish town hall and the kind of 19th-century three-star hotels that guidebooks describe as having "character." Tourists and sun are plentiful. But until May 15, it was not a place of political symbolism, not a Tiananmen Square of Spain. That changed as Puerta del Sol, or "Sun's Gate," became a Tahrir Square for Spanish youth, who flew the Egyptian flag in solidarity with the Arab Spring.

Today their numbers and energy are still strong, though their focus is more diffuse. On Sept. 18, some 5,000 marched, wave after wave – families, pregnant women, students, couples with baby strollers, and seniors. They shook their hands above their heads before entering the square, shouting, "It's not democracy," or "You don't represent us."

"You don't stage a revolution with the argument that things are complicated, and we need time to discuss it," says José Ignacio Torreblanca of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. "But they see the political class as closed, opaque, corrupt, insensitive. All polls show a wide feeling among youth that the political class and elites are a problem."

Spanish youth, like those in other parts of the Continent, are divided over "Europe." Many don't see Brussels as a shining ideal but as an accounting house. Yet what's mostly complicated are their personal lives: In an age of austerity, college grads face short-term contracts and unpaid internships – busy work that often doesn't train them.

In France, they are the "700 generation" – earning €700 a month (US$965). Affordable housing is in short supply, rents are expensive, and for many, getting a home loan seems as likely as changing the rings of Saturn. Without a work contract, it is often hard to sign a lease. Moving from flat to flat takes a toll, and living at home puts a strain on families.

Nadera is a young French Arab, 28. With black hair pulled back and fine features, she has a slightly glamorous look that belies her status as a member of the 700 generation who works seasonal jobs for cash. She's staying on the couch of friends in Paris. She comes from a family of nine. She left home at 14 and has held numerous jobs. One was caring for the handicapped, and she would like to one day own a home-care business; helping others is an ideal of hers. But she doesn't know what to do next, and struggles with a sense of "belonging." "I don't feel European or French, and when I go to Morocco, I don't feel Moroccan," she says. "What's my place and what is Europe's place in the world?"

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