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Germans Protest Unemployment

February 5, 1998

BERLIN (AP) _ Blowing whistles, beating drums and chanting ``Kohl must go,″ thousands of Germans nationwide protested record-high unemployment Thursday, the first such demonstrations since joblessness started its steep climb.

The rallies _ from Berlin in the north to Nuremberg in the south _ were timed to coincide with the government’s announcement that unemployment in January reached a postwar record of 12.6 percent, or 4.8 million people.

Inspired by recent protests in France, Germany’s jobless set aside their reservations and gathered outside employment offices in more than 100 cities. Organizers said a total of 10,000 people participated.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl has staked his re-election chances on economic recovery. With last month’s jobless rate nearly a full percentage point over December’s 11.8 percent, parliament debated Thursday whether the government has been doing enough.

Only recently did the coalition piece together a job creation plan, targeting young people and the longterm unemployed, and assigning federal funds for local governments to hire 100,000 welfare recipients each year.

On Thursday, the opposition Social Democrats and Greens rejected the plan _ a clear refusal to bail out Kohl when national elections are just seven months away.

At protests throughout the country, the unemployed, backed by Germany’s most powerful unions and national advocacy groups, also blamed Bonn’s inaction for the steady rise in joblessness.

``Every year it just gets worse and worse,″ said Monika Kuehn, a protester in Berlin who lost her job at a scientific research library more than a year ago.

It took the French, she said, to spark Germans into action. Since mid-December, thousands of French protesters have been occupying welfare agencies and other offices around the country.

``We saw what the French were doing, and it gave us ideas,″ Kuehn said. ``Germans aren’t so spontaneous.″

In Berlin and Saarbruecken, French workers came to protest in solidarity. Back home, the French are demanding increased jobless benefits. But Germany’s unemployed _ 80 percent of whom receive monthly government payments _ say they would rather have job creation.

Unemployment is worst in the former East Germany, where jobs vanished when the communist region merged with the West in 1990. Inefficient factories were closed; post-reunification construction work has dried up.

The new labor figures show that joblessness is now twice as high in the east than in the west, where the government says jobs actually increased in January for the first time since the summer of 1995.

Still, Labor Office president Bernhard Jagoda offered a grim outlook for the rest of the year, saying ``We will have our hands full keeping the 1998 average jobless number below that of 1997.″

While the problem may get worse, it has been drastic for months, with the number of jobless inching toward the painfully round number of 5 million. Thursday’s protests were significant _ because they were the first, and because they did not happen sooner.

``We’re not the French!″ shouted protester Wilhelm Rost, straining to be heard over the Berlin crowd. The 50-year-old electrician, who lost his job with a construction firm a few months ago, was cheerily philosophical about why the protests were unusual.

Like much else in Germany, the explanation hinges on a postwar legacy: in this case, a fear of unrest. Efforts to keep Germany peaceful after World War II have inspired a social timidity that can be seen as deterring organized protest.

``Germans like to keep quiet,″ Rost said. ``It’s because of our history.″

The protests were peaceful, although in Berlin screaming protesters tried to enter the historic and luxurious Adlon Hotel near the Brandenburg Gate.

Germany’s unemployment association, which organized the protests, said people planned to camp in sleeping bags outside of employment offices Thursday night _ and would resume demonstration monthly until the elections.

``We will not stand still,″ association president Klaus Grehn said.

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