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No End in Sight for Protests Across Europe

There seems to be no end in sight for large-scale anti-government protest movements in France, Hungary and Serbia. If anything, the desire to protest is likely to broaden across Europe as crucial European elections in May draw nearer.

(CN) — There seems to be no end in sight for large-scale anti-government protest movements in France, Hungary and Serbia. If anything, the desire to protest is likely to broaden across Europe as crucial European elections in May draw nearer.

Over the weekend, France was again the scene of protests, which often descended into violence. It was the eighth weekend of protests against President Emmanuel Macron's government and his largely pro-business agenda to reform labor and pension laws, streamline government and push motorists away from diesel gas.

Interior ministry officials estimated that 50,000 people took part in demonstrations across France, an increase from the previous weekend, but well below the peak in November when about 280,000 people took to the streets.

In large part, this weekend's larger demonstrations were seen as a rebuke to Macron’s striking a defiant tone in a New Year’s Eve message in which he vowed to push ahead with reforms.

Smoke rises from a riverboat set ablaze by protesters on Jan. 5, 2019, in Paris, France. (Photo by COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE)

Macron on television criticized his fellow citizens as being unrealistic.

“In recent years, we've engaged in a blatant denial of reality,” he said, according to France 24, a French state-owned broadcaster. “We can't work less, earn more, cut taxes and increase spending.”

He vowed to push ahead with unemployment insurance and pension reforms. This month, his government also is due to open a wide-ranging national dialogue about France's future.

On Saturday, protesters in Paris broke into a ministry building with a forklift and forced a government spokesman to flee. They also burned cars and motorcycles and clashed with riot police, who used tear gas to disperse crowds.

The protesters are known as the “yellow vests” because they dress in the high-visibility yellow vests motorists in Europe wear in the event of roadside emergencies. The protests started as a grassroots movement and remain diverse in scope, bringing in a variety of causes across the political spectrum.

In Budapest, about 10,000 protesters hit the streets again on Saturday, protesting against the government of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s far-right nationalist president who has enraged many in his Eastern European country after his government passed a law that allows employers to make workers put in 400 hours of overtime a year. It's been dubbed the “slave law.”

Protesters are also upset at Orban's government for its efforts to eliminate news outlets that are critical of his government and for allegedly undermining democracy. Most recently, the government passed a law that sets up a new court system controlled by the justice ministry.

Protesters in Hungary rallied in front of the Parliament building. Some wore yellow vests in solidarity with the French protesters. Protesters also carried banners, one of which stated: “Sweep Away the Regime,” and waved Hungarian and European Union flags. Orban has established himself as one of the chief critics of the EU's liberal policies and his critics accuse him of seeking to undermine the unity of the European Union.

Orban's government accused the protesters of being backed by George Soros, a Hungarian-born billionaire who backs liberal causes around the world, and who has become a pinata for right-wingers and anti-Semites.

Women in yellow vests observe a moment of silence for victims in the Yellow Vest movement in Paris on Jan. 8, 2018. (AP photo/Michael Euler)

In a news release Monday, the Hungarian government accused “the Soros network” and “pro-immigration forces” of backing the protests. Orban's government is vehemently opposed to immigration and has erected border fences to stop refugees and immigrants from entering Hungary.

“They are attacking the anti-immigration national government because they want to remove it and place Soros’s people in power,” Istvan Hollik, a government spokesman, said in the statement. Hollik charged that opposition forces want to open Hungary's borders to immigrants and make it “give up our national sovereignty.”

Hollik said these “pro-immigration forces” want to win a majority in the May elections for the European Parliament and make Europe an “immigrant continent.”

In Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, thousands of protesters took to the streets on Saturday in freezing temperatures, as did the demonstrators in Hungary.

They too are protesting against their government, which they see as authoritarian and corrupt. Serbia is not part of the EU but is seeking entry to the economic and political bloc.

The Serbian protesters are upset with President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

The protests in Serbia have lasted for five weeks and were sparked by an attack on an opposition politician, Borko Steganovic, by unknown assailants in November. Protesters are also upset at attacks on journalists and the media.

As in Hungary, though, the government is popular and has a strong grip on power.

Reuters reported that Vucic has hinted he might call snap elections. The news agency said an October poll by Belgrade-based CESID, an election watchdog, found that about 53.3 percent of voters support Vucic's party. His party's governing coalition holds 160 of the Serbian parliament's 250 seats.

This is expected to be a difficult year for Europe politically.

First of all, Great Britain is expected to break away from the EU on March 29.

Then from May 26 to 29, Europeans go to the polls to vote for a new European Parliament, and many political experts believe far-right and anti-EU political forces will make gains. The new Parliament will decide who will become the next EU president.

“In my view, 2019 will be a real stress test for EU,” said Catherine De Vries, a political scientist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, on Twitter recently.

She cited the possibility of an economic downturn in 2019 combined with stalled decision-making by a fractured European Parliament as dangers for the bloc.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union)

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