UPDATE 1-Thousands of Italians rally against Monti's austerity

* Students and workers protest against Monti's cuts

* Far right group, anti-fascists also stage rallies

ROME, Nov 24 (Reuters) - 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 Nov. 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.

OCCUPIED SCHOOLS

"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.

Most Popular in Business