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Germany

Fewer Germans Protest Against Reforms

Tens of thousands of Germans hit the streets again late Monday, particularly in the poorer east, in protest against the government's job market reforms, ahead of two key state elections this weekend.

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Right-extremists keep marching

The anti-globalization group Attac said that 10,000 people had turned out in the capital Berlin, 3,500 according to police, and that similar numbers rallied in the eastern city of Leipzig, usually host to the biggest protests.

Police said some 2,000 people turned out in Magdeburg, eastern Germany, where the so-called Monday demonstrations began at the end of July.

In the state of Saxony-Anhalt, also in the east, around 9,000 people made their voices heard, while 5,000 were out in neighbouring Thuringia.

Some 11,000 people joined the movement in Brandenburg, which along with the state of Saxony is holding parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Around 230 rallies and protests were planned throughout the evening to draw attention to the job reforms, which come into force on Jan. 1 and will reduce long-term unemployment benefits to the level of social welfare payments.

Losing momentum?

The figures were down on the 75,000 people who took part a week ago, and it is unclear whether momentum can be maintained for a nationwide protest on Oct. 2; on the eve of the anniversary of German reunification in 1990.

The labor market changes will hit the former communist East hardest. Unemployment there is twice that in the west and young people have been abandoning the region in droves in search of a better future.

Ahead of the elections in Brandenburg and Saxony, voters have shown increasing signs they are disenchanted with Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's failure to find them jobs and revitalize the euro zone's biggest economy.

Opinion polls suggest they will turn to parties on both extremes of the political spectrum, heaping more pressure on Schröder in the wake of several recent bad election results.

Divisions also appear to be surfacing between eastern and western regions, with some in the more affluent parts of the country showing open resentment to the billions in "solidarity" payments that have been made to the east since the early 1990s.

Presidential participation

German President Horst Köhler, a former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), became mired in that debate after his comments in the weekly Focus magazine were perceived as encouraging an abandoning of the eastern states.

"There were and there are big differences in living standards everywhere in Germany. It's the same from north to south as it is from east to west," Köhler told the news magazine in its Monday edition.

"If you want to level them out, you cement in place a subsidized state and place an intolerable burden of debt on the younger generation. We must get away from a subsidised state," he said.

His remarks won a broadside from Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Minister Renate Künast, who said: "It's not a president's job to say: 'take care of your problems on your own.'"

The reaction to a prominent political figure addressing the virtual taboo of social inequality was also indicative of how much progress has been made just two months before the 15th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"It's the first time that a senior German politician has called into question the central doctrine of unified Germany," said the daily Berliner Zeitung. "Equalizing living standards is one of the founding myths of the united Germany," its editorial read under the headline "Köhler was right."

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