Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti

Rome - Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti faced protests and catcalls on Saturday as he defended tax authorities against attacks fuelled by his government's unpopular austerity measures.

Monti's speech to a passing-out parade of new officers of the Guardia di Finanza tax police in the northern city of Bergamo was met by a small plane trailing a banner reading “Enough with Monti, enough with taxes”.

“You are preparing to begin this profession, this service, at a moment of particular difficulty for Italy and Europe,” Monti told the parade in a speech which was interrupted several times by shouts from protestors.

Monti's technocrat government has imposed about € 24 billion ($30 billion) worth of tax hikes to shore up Italy's strained public finances and control a public debt burden equivalent to about 120 percent of gross domestic product.

Italy's tax officials have been under growing pressure over recent months and Equitalia, the agency which collects taxes and fines, has been targeted by a string of attacks and threats by desperate small businessmen as well as anarchist groups.

Although the acts of violence against Equitalia offices and staff have been generally condemned, many commentators have expressed sympathy for the plight of struggling tax payers and attacked authorities for a heavy handed approach.

“The tax authorities are seen by many today as a true enemy,” Giorgio Squinzi, the new head of Italy's main business lobby Confindustria, said in a speech on Friday.

Monti's personal approval ratings have dropped sharply and local election results this month showed a surge in support for protest parties opposed to his government and calling for renewal of the discredited political system.

He brushed off the hecklers at Saturday's parade, saying the fight against the chronic problem of tax evasion, one of the priorities for his government, could not be won “with empty words and gestures of protest”.

“The crisis that Europe and Italy are going through is a crisis which comes from a long way away. It is a crisis that can be understood not by sounding off but by reflection,” he said.

The government has faced particularly strong resistance in the prosperous regions of the north, Italy's economic heartland, where there is strong resentment against tax increases seen as props for the poor and corruption-riddled southern regions.

Monti, who comes from Varese near the Swiss border, said “separatism” was not the answer but he said citizens from the north had a right to be especially concerned about tax evasion.

“We know that the competitiveness of our companies is frequently hurt because of the tax evasion which takes place throughout the country and perhaps more in other parts of the country than in this one,” he said. - Reuters