Portugal Throws Open Europe’s Them-And-Us Austerity Divide

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When it comes to sharing the burden of austerity, some Portuguese feel more equal than others.

Half way through his four-year term, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho is trying to curb popular resentment over what opponents say is a widening gulf between private employees and about 600,000 public workers who have mostly stayed immune to mass job cuts. Portugal’s two biggest unions scheduled a general strike for tomorrow, the second since the country asked for international aid in April 2011, to protect benefits, including a 35-hour working week and early retirement.

“It’s unfair for the public sector to have certain benefits that don’t exist in the private sector,” said Francisco Rodrigues, 78, who runs a clothing store opposite the parliament building in Lisbon.

The sentiment is one that echoes across southern Europefrom the Algarve in Portugal to Xanthi in eastern Greece as debt crisis-hit countries unpick years of overspending and largesse.

What’s bothering the Portuguese isn’t just that austerity helped prolong a recession and sent unemployment to a record 18 percent, it’s also that the government used taxation more than those in Greece and Ireland to try to narrow the budget deficit. Some workers on the state payrolls are perceived to have escaped the deterioration in living standards being felt by others.

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