Trash piles up in Paris as strikes resist Macron’s pension reform

PARIS (AP) — The City of Lights is losing its luster with tons of trash piling up on Paris sidewalks as sanitation workers strike for a ninth day on Tuesday. Creeping misery is the most visible sign of widespread anger over a bill to raise France’s retirement age by two years.

The smelly scent of rotten food begins to escape from some trash bags and overflowing garbage cans. Neither the left bank palace housing the Senate nor, on the other side of the city, a street close to the Elysee, where the waste from the presidential residence would be stored, were spared from the strike.

More than 5,600 tonnes of rubbish had piled up on Monday, prompting complaints from some district mayors. Some piles disappeared early Tuesday with the help of a private company, television channel BFMTV reported.

TOPSHOT – A pedestrian walks past containers of household waste on a street in Paris, March 12, 2023, which have been piling up since collectors went on strike against the French government’s pension reform plan on March 6, 2023 (Photo by Stefano RELLANDINI/AFP) (Photo by STEFANO RELLANDINI/AFP via Getty Images)

Other French cities are also experiencing rubbish problems, but the mayhem in Paris, the showcase of France, has quickly become emblematic of the strikers’ discontent.

“It’s a bit too much because it was even difficult to navigate” in some streets, 24-year-old British visitor Nadiia Turkay said after visiting the French capital. She added that it was “upsetting to be honest” because in “beautiful streets… you see all the trash and stuff. The smell.”

Turkay nevertheless sympathized with the strikers and accepted his discomfort as being “for a good cause”.

Even the strikers themselves, who include garbage collectors, street cleaners and underground sewers, worry about what becomes of Paris in their absence.

“It makes me sick,” said Gursel Durnaz, who has been on a picket line for nine days. “There are trash cans everywhere, stuff everywhere. People cannot pass. We are fully aware.

But, he added, President Emmanuel Macron need only withdraw his plan to raise the retirement age in France “and Paris will be clean in three days”.

Strikes have intermittently stymied other sectors including transport, energy and ports, but Macron remains fearless as his government continues efforts to push the unpopular pension reform bill through parliament. The bill would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 for most people and from 57 to 59 for most people working in the sanitation sector.

Sanitation workers say two more years is too long for the essential but neglected services they provide to all.

“What makes France go round are the invisible jobs. … Unfortunately, we are among the invisible,” said Jamel Ouchen, who sweeps the streets of an upscale district of Paris. He suggested politicians go on a ‘discovery day’ to learn first-hand what it takes to keep the city clean.

“They won’t last a single day,” Ouchen said.

Health is a major concern in the sanitation sector, officially recognized with the current early retirement at 57, although many people are working longer to increase their pensions. With the exception of sewer workers, there do not appear to be any long-term studies to back up widespread claims of shortened life expectancy among sewer workers.

However, health reasons are behind Ali Chaligui’s decision to quit his job as a garbage collector for a clerical position in logistics. Chaligui, 41, says he still has after-effects 10 years later, such as tendonitis, shoulder and ankle problems.

“Mr. Macron wants us to die at work,” said Frédéric Aubisse, sewer worker and member of the executive committee of the sanitation section of the left-wing CGT union, at the forefront of the mobilization against the pension system.

The stakes will be high on Wednesday for both the government and the strikers. Unions stage eighth nationwide protest march since January, third in nine days; The action is timed to coincide with a closed-door meeting of seven senators and seven lower house lawmakers who will try to reach consensus on the text of the bill. Success would send the legislation back to both houses for a vote on Thursday.

But nothing is certain, and the countdown seems to have fed the determination of the strikers posted on the picket lines.

Durnaz, 55, is among the pickets outside an incineration plant south of Paris, one of three serving the capital – all blocked since March 6. He only returned home twice to see his wife and three children. “It’s cold, it’s raining, it’s windy,” he said.

Even if the bill becomes law, “we have other options,” Durnaz said. “It is not finished.”

“Nothing is set in stone,” added Aubisse, the union official. He cited an unpopular 2006 law to promote youth employment that was imposed by then Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin despite massive student protests that sparked a political crisis. Months later, it was dropped in a parliamentary vote.

If the pension reform is passed, “things will happen,” said Aubisse. “It’s sure and certain.”