MADRID – On the front lines of the world's May Day protests this year, along with the traditional chants, banners and marches, a gamut of emotions flowed through the crowds: Anger. Fear. Elation. Despair.
With Europe's unemployed denouncing austerity measures, Asia's laborers demanding higher salaries and U.S. protesters condemning Wall Street, Tuesday's demonstrations by hundreds of thousands were less a celebration of workers' rights than a furious venting 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, dealing with a 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 U.S., protesters lined major financial institutions in the country's most high-profile Occupy Wall Street rallies since the encampments protesting the gap between the superrich and poor came down in the fall. Crowds blocked intersections in Oakland, Calif., trying to force businesses to shut down for not observing calls for a "general strike"; police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. Police in riot gear faced dozens of Occupy activists marching in front of a Bank of America in New York City, chanting "Bank of America. Bad for America." At least 15 people were arrested.
About 50 members of the Occupy London movement brought tents and camping supplies to move into a square that houses the London Stock Exchange. There were no immediate reports of arrests.
Under a gray Madrid sky that reflected the dark national mood, 25-year Adriana Jaime turned out to march. Jaime speaks three 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.
"I am here because there is no future for the young people of this country," Jaime 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 percent jobless rate, and fend off fears the country will soon need a bailout like Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
But Ana Lopez, a 44-year-old civil servant, argued 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 austerity measures across the continent, calling instead for a stimulus program to revive the 17-nation eurozone's depressed economies.
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.
"(We need) new policies that will satisfy the needs of workers and not of bosses and banks," said Ilias Vrettakos of the ADEDY union.
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, and violence was largely contained at the protests.
After a workers' day march in Santiago, Chile, some protesters threw objects at closed businesses, breaking the windows of several banks and pulling out furniture to build a bonfire in the street. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons, and arrested an undetermined number of people. In Argentina, small explosion went off outside the EU headquarters in Buenos Aires before dawn, breaking a few windows, but there were no injuries and no one was arrested.
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 Havana, Cubans marked May Day not with protest but with a mass demonstration dedicated to "preserving and perfecting socialism," the slogan on a huge banner carried by medical workers who led the march. Thousands filed through the capital's Plaza of the Revolution in front of President Raul Castro and Cabinet officials, waving red, white and blue Cuban flags.
Thousands in Venezuela held separate May Day marches in Caracas, one praising President Hugo Chavez for signing a law that reduces the workweek to 40 hours and another rally protesting the law's passage without input from businesses and labor unions.
"It's sad that democracy is slipping out of our hands," said Jesus Pinto, a security guard and Chavez opponent.
Contributing to this report were Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, Jim Heintz in Moscow, Nicholas Paphitis and Demetris Nellas in Athens, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Johanna Decorse in Toulouse, France, Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas, Venezuela, Peter Orsi in Havana, Terry Collins in Oakland, Calif., and Verena Dobnik in New York.