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May Day marked by violent clashes

Leuenberger is rushed off the stage Keystone

Clashes in Zurich between police and hundreds of leftwing militants have overshadowed traditional May Day demonstrations in Switzerland.

Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at rock-throwing demonstrators, and another group of militants disrupted a speech by President Moritz Leuenberger, who was forced to flee for his safety.

The extremists caused damage to buildings, including at least one branch of a Swiss bank and a clothing store. Police arrested about 50 people, and there were several injuries reported.

A group of about 100 demonstrators joined the crowd gathered to hear Leuenberger’s address earlier in the evening. They threw fireworks to interrupt his speech at which point bodyguards moved in to take the visibly shaken president to safety.

The extremists were later successful in storming and destroying part of the stage. Speaking on Swiss television, the Zurich mayor, Elmer Ledergerber, criticised the police for not stepping in quickly enough to protect Leuenberger.

The clashes overshadowed a peaceful march earlier in the day in the financial capital by an estimated 4,000 people, in what was the largest May Day rally in the country.

The marches were marked this year by calls for an increase in wages. Union leaders and lawmakers said it was high time that not only top managers benefited from an improving economy.

The president of the Social Democratic Party, Hans-Jürg Fehr, speaking in Bülach outside Zurich, accused the conservative members of the government of destroying the Swiss welfare state, public services and its humanitarian traditions.

Manager salaries

He also made an indirect reference to a debate in the country over extremely high managers’ salaries, saying the income of the large majority of Swiss had shrunk over the past 15 years, in contrast to the rocketing pay packets of the heads of Switzerland’s leading companies.

Marcel Ospel, the CEO of the big Swiss bank, UBS, came under fire last month when it was revealed that he was paid SFr24 million ($18.74 million) in 2005.

Speaking in Interlaken, the president of the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions, Paul Rechsteiner, picked up on the theme, demanding a “political turning point for salaries”. He said workers also deserved to benefit from the sharp rise in economic productivity.

The head of the union, Communication, Christian Levrat, said it was a “scandal” that women in the country earned 20 per cent less on average than men during his speech in Bern.

Levrat also spoke out against plans put forward by the cabinet to sell off the government’s majority stake in the country’s leading telecoms operator, Swisscom.

Most of the speakers called on the Swiss to vote against plans to tighten the country’s immigration laws in a nationwide ballot in September.

swissinfo with agencies

May Day is the commemoration of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 in Chicago and a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labour movement.

The May 1 date is used because in 1884, US trade unions demanded an eight-hour workday to come into effect as of May 1, 1886. The call led to a general strike and the 1886 riot.

May Day in most of the world today, including Switzerland, is marked by huge street rallies of workers led by their trade unions and various large socialist and communist parties.

Outside North America and Britain, it is often referred to as Labour Day.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR