MADRID Solidarity with Spain's "los indignados (the indignant)" has sparked a wave of protest across Europe as jobless and alienated young people show their frustration over their bleak futures.
Faced with dwindling jobs, opportunities and benefits and bearing the burden of previous generations' overspending, this "lost generation" of young Europeans is taking the lead away from weakened labour unions and ineffectual politicians in voicing the discontent felt by many from London to Athens.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators packed squares across Spain ahead of local elections in May to make clear they rejected the mainstream politicians blamed for the country's prolonged economic woes and 45 percent youth unemployment.
Like similar movements in London, Paris and Athens, the protests were largely leaderless and amorphous and reflected a drift from leftist parties that are either powerless or have supported austerity pacts rather than denounce spending cuts arising from the euro zone debt crisis.
"When almost half of a country's youth is unemployed ... and when they feel abandoned by the political system ... It's fair to say this is no longer just an economic crisis," said David Bach, a professor at the IE Business School in Madrid.
TENT TOWNS IN PUBLIC SQUARES
Although France and Germany have returned to economic growth, much of the euro currency area is struggling to recover from credit gluts, housing bubbles and bank collapses that forced governments to make the drastic spending.
Greece is negotiating a second aid package -- including harsh austerity measures -- with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund after it spiralled into a debt crisis and had to ask for a bailout last year.
Thousands of Greeks have been staging daily -- and growing -- demonstrations outside parliament in Athens.
About 50 tents were on Syntagma square in the past week -- mirroring the tent village in central Madrid -- and a movement called "The Indignant Citizens" called on its blog for the end of tolerance for those responsible for Greece's economic turmoil.
"It's no surprise that the country where you've seen protests in sympathy (with Spain) is Greece, as they're the two most similar situations," said David Lea, Western Europe political analyst at Control Risks. "It is something you're going to see across Europe, but there will be national differences."
Protesters in Paris have moved their daily meetings to a location near the Place de la Bastille after riot police imposed a ban on gatherings.
Brandishing signs reading "Real democracy now," "Wake up, Paris" and "Get Indignant!," protesters have created specialised commissions to draw up proposals, while volunteers record and compile grievances, echoing a practice from the early days of the French Revolution.
In Britain, students have led the protests against upcoming austerity measures, but recent gatherings have also drawn young people in "precarious" jobs -- pensioners and office workers.
"I have seen more and more people coming to our meetings in suits and ties," one protester said.
Like protesters in the Middle East earlier this year, the European groups have organised themselves via social media into a grassroots movement underpinned by common goals such as more jobs for youths and enhanced social justice.
A pan-European "major day of protest" is being planned for later in June.
SPARK OF OUTRAGE
Facing increasing pressure to dismantle their three-week-old tent settlement in Madrid's Puerta del Sol plaza, Spanish organisers are now setting up neighbourhood groups to retain momentum in the run-up to general elections due by March.
Spain's young people are considered one of the generations best prepared to enter the work force, but with the lowest chances of finding a job. The majority still live with their parents.
"The main goal now is to keep the movement alive here and spread it to the rest of Europe," said Iker, a 22-year-old audio-visual communications student, volunteering at a stand for neighbourhood groups. He declined to give his last name.
Near the protesters' flower-bed-turned-vegetable-garden Patricia Martin, an 18-year-old translation student, helped out at a makeshift communications stand after spending many nights sleeping in the plaza.
"There's no work for me here. The politicians don't want to listen to us, but deep down they know we're right. We're just trying to make sure we have a future here," said Martin, who is thinking of leaving Spain soon to seek work elsewhere.
Demonstrators are now trying to narrow their long list of demands into a common platform including reforms of lending practices that have saddled many Spaniards with high debt and electoral reforms to reduce the dominance of two main parties.
Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid, said it was not clear whether the protesters were capable of forming anything as organised or permanent as their own political party.
"You're seeing it all over Europe ... Leftist parties, unions and youth protesters aren't coordinated. The left and the unions don't come out with the youth," he said.
Working from a post with information on neighbourhood gatherings, Alvaro Garcia, a 25-year-old student researching 19th century popular political movements in Madrid, said his goal was to see real job opportunities for his generation.
"This country has gone down the toilet. The best most of us can expect to work in is delivering pizzas," Garcia said.
(Additional reporting by Peter Apps in London, Nicholas Vinocour in Paris, Angeliki Koutantou and Renee Maltezou in Athens and Judy MacInnes in Madrid; Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Sonya Hepinstall)