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Tens of thousands of Belgians have gathered in Brussels to protest against planned austerity measures by the new government. The march will kick off a month-long campaign against the reforms.
Some 100,000 people were expected at Thursday's demonstration in the Belgian capital, police said, while unions said they were hoping 100,000 would take part.
The march was to be accompanied by a work slowdown affecting institutions including schools, prisons, post offices, the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge and the ironworking industry.
The demonstration is the prelude to a month-long campaign planned by unions to protest at the economic and social reforms announced by Prime Minister Charles Michel's center-right coalition. The campaign, which envisages rolling strikes across the country over the next few weeks, is to culminate in a nationwide strike on December 15.
The government says it is being forced to impose strict austerity measures - including extending the pension age, freezing the previously automatic link between wages and inflation and cutting public services - in order to keep the budget deficit within European Union constraints. Cuts will also hit the civil service, culture and scientific research.
Unions and left-wing opposition groups say the government policies target only workers and the general population, while unfairly favoring businesses.
The reforms are intended to save 11 billion euros ($13.8 billion) during the government's term in office.
Francophone Michel, who leads the business-friendly Reformist Movement (MR), was sworn in as the head of the new government in mid-October after months of coalition negotations. His government also comprises three right-wing, Flemish-speaking parties, including the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which advocates the secession of Belgium's Flemish-speaking north.
The government, like those before it, will have to face the difficult challenge posed by the division between Flemish-speaking and French-speaking regions.
tj/bw (AFP, dpa, AP)