Rajoy Calls for Calm After Protests, Defends Labor Overhaul

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for “calm” after students and police clashed at an anti-austerity rally and said he would stick to an overhaul of labor rules following nationwide protests.

“It’s time for calm and responsibility, and of course we mustn’t project an image abroad that doesn’t reflect our country,” Rajoy told reporters at a news conference with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in London today.

El Pais and El Mundo newspapers showed pictures today of police with riot gear and truncheons pinning one demonstrator to the floor and handcuffing another bleeding youth at a protest in Valencia. Rajoy said police have “a function to fulfill” just as the students have the right to protest.

Rajoy, in power since December, is trying to convince investors and voters he can face down opposition to overhaul the economy and implement the deepest budget cuts in at least three decades. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated across Spain on Feb. 19 in protests organized by unions against a decree that lowers firing costs and makes it easier for firms to reduce wages.

Rajoy, who has a parliamentary majority, said the government wouldn’t change the law that aims to bring down the 23 percent unemployment rate. The decree, approved by the Cabinet on Feb. 10, is making its way through Parliament as a bill with the government seeking support from other parties. While unions have criticized it, the main CEOE business group has praised the legislation.

“I think the decisions we have taken are just and equitable, and when growth starts they will help to create jobs,” he said. “The government has to defend the common interest and to work for growth and jobs.”

Spain’s economy is edging into its second recession in as many years and the Bank of Spain expects the economy to contract 1.5 percent this year amid deeper austerity measures. The unemployment rate is the highest in the European Union and among young people amounts to 49 percent.

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