ROME Tens of thousands of students and workers rallied across Italy on Saturday to protest against austerity measures imposed by Prime Minister Mario Monti's technocrat government.
Appointed a year ago when Italy came close to a Greek-style debt crisis, Monti has pushed through painful tax increases and spending cuts to try to rein in public finances at a time when schools and universities say they desperately need more support.
"We need to fight for our rights. This government doesn't represent us and these austerity measures and all the cuts they've introduced are totally anti-democratic," said student protester Tommaso Bernardi, attending a rally in Rome.
Far-right group Casapound marched through the capital Rome later on Saturday, chanting "Monti, go away!". Anti-fascists staged a counter-demonstration in another part of town.
"This government is making the nation starve and is destroying the social welfare system," said Casapound president Gianluca Iannone. "The weakest are hit hardest - the disabled, students and single-income families."
Police organised different routes and times for the rallies to reduce the risk of violence after scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators during protests on November 14 that saw the police criticised for heavy-handed tactics.
Several thousand students and workers also rallied in other cities including Naples, Florence and Catania.
No clashes were reported but the widespread protests highlighted the scale of discontent in the recession-hit country ahead of parliamentary elections next year.
"We need to change this country, starting from investments in schools, universities and culture," said Michele Orezzi, a university union coordinator, adding that Italy's education system was "crumbling into pieces".
With youth unemployment at about 35 percent, more than three times the national average, and Monti's austerity policies biting into education spending, school pupils and university students have taken an active role in anti-government protests.
Much anger is focused on an education reform bill going through parliament that would give schools more autonomy and allow them to accept other sources of funding than the state. Protesters believe this is intended to encourage privatisation.
Students have occupied schools around Rome in recent weeks to express their anger and frustration at repeated funding cuts, chaining gates shut and camping inside classrooms.
Monti has defended his austerity plan, saying he believes his technocrat government will be remembered for having helped Italy pull itself out of a deep economic crisis without needing to resort to external aid.
Italy has been the European Union's most sluggish economy for more than a decade, fuelling investor concerns about its ability to bring down public debt of around 126 percent of output.
(Reporting by Catherine Hornby, James Mackenzie and Reuters Television; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Ralph Gowling)