BERLIN -- Germans turned out in force yesterday to protest their government's drive to trim the welfare state, heeding labor unions' call to "stand up and be counted" as leaders across Europe struggle to reform creaking social programs.
More than 200,000 protesters, blowing whistles and waving union flags, gathered in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate for the biggest rally yet against Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's year-old reform drive. Organizers said turnout nationwide topped 500,000, with big rallies also held in Cologne and Stuttgart.
Germany and other European nations are trying to reform generous, and expensive, welfare systems as the average age of their populations rise. The efforts have attracted widespread resistance, along with protests that pensioners and the jobless are bearing an unfair share of the pain.
"We're fed up with so-called reforms that we have to pay for but others benefit from," the head of German manufacturing union IG Metall, Juergen Peters, said at the protest yesterday in Cologne.
The demonstrations were billed as part of a "European day of action" that also drew tens of thousands of retirees onto the streets of Rome to demand higher pensions and protest steep increases in the cost of living.
Union leaders, who have been at the forefront of protests against government plans to reform Italy's generous pension system, said turnout was at least half a million in Rome. Police gave no estimate.
In Paris, about 5,500 people marched in support of unions' call for "a more social Europe," police said. Other French cities saw smaller demonstrations.
In Berlin, protesters' placards said "social demolition creates no jobs" and urged Schroeder to throw his "agenda in the trash."
Schroeder's so-called Agenda 2010 of reforms, launched last year as Germany recorded a third year of economic stagnation, includes higher health care fees, lower retirement and jobless benefits, looser job protection laws, and income tax cuts.
It has angered many Germans and drawn resistance from left-wingers inside his Social Democratic Party as well as the unions, the party's traditional allies.
Schroeder says he can preserve the welfare state for future generations only by pressing ahead with cuts now, but that has done little to dampen resentment over higher health care costs and a freeze on retirement benefits this year. The chancellor said ahead of the protests yesterday that he would not change course.