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Rome protest turns up heat on new PM Letta

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta attends a news conference with European Parliament President Martin Schulz (not pictured) at Chigi palac
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta attends a news conference with European Parliament President Martin Schulz (not pictured) at Chigi palac

ROME (Reuters) - Thousands of people protested in Rome on Saturday against austerity policies and high unemployment, urging new Prime Minister Enrico Letta to focus on creating jobs to help pull the country out of recession.

"We hope that this government will finally start listening to us because we are losing our patience," said Enzo Bernardis, who joined the sea of protesters waving red flags and calling for more workers' rights and better contracts.

Less than a month in power, Letta is trying to hold together an uneasy coalition between his center-left Democratic party and the center-right People of Freedom, led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Confidence in the government, cobbled together after inconclusive elections, is already falling, with one poll on Friday by the SWG institute showing its approval rating had dropped to 34 percent from 43 percent at the start of the month.

"We can't wait anymore" and "We need money to live" were among slogans on banners held up by the crowds.

Letta promised to make jobs his top priority when he came to power in April after two months of political deadlock. But several protesters complained he was not sticking to his vow, focusing instead on a property tax reform outlined this week.

Union leaders said he needed to shift away from the austerity agenda pursued by former Prime Minister Mario Monti, who introduced a range of spending cuts, tax hikes and pension reform to shore up strained public finances.

"We need to start over with more investment. If we don't restart with public and private investments, there will no new jobs," said Maurizio Landini, secretary-general of the left-wing metalworkers union Fiom.

Italy is stuck in its longest recession since quarterly records began in 1970, and jobless rates are close to record highs, with youth unemployment at around 38 percent.

Other protesters were pessimistic that Letta's fragile government would be able to take effective action.

"This government will last a very short time," said demonstrator Marco Silvani. What we need is a new leftist party that fights for the rights of the people," he said.

(Reporting By Carmelo Carmilli and Roberto Mignucci, writing by Catherine Hornby; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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