Paris drowns in garbage as collectors strike over pension reform


Mountains of garbage bags block the streets. Rats and pigeons gnaw on baguettes on the sidewalk. A lingering, noxious odor permeates the air.

This is Paris in 2023. The City of Light and Love has turned into the City of Garbage after garbage collectors went on strike more than a week ago to protest the French government’s plan to raise their retirement age. Now some 7,000 tons of rubbish are piling up on the sidewalks of Paris, says the city, with no one to pick it up and many residents longing for solutions.

The French capital “has become a giant open-air rubbish bin,” said Transport Minister Clement Beaune.

Paris was littered with rubbish as the pension reform proposed by the French government has led municipal waste collectors to go on strike for the tenth day. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

The crisis is likely to come to a head this week, as French lawmakers debate and vote on the government’s proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, an unpopular reform that President Emmanuel Macron says is needed to improve the country’s social security system. to preserve the country.

Under the proposal, garbage collectors, who enjoy a special status because their job is physically demanding, would see their retirement age rise from 57 to 59. Unions find this unacceptable. They say garbage collectors have more health problems than other workers because they carry heavy loads, are exposed to toxic materials and work irregular hours.

In an effort to force the government to back down, municipal waste collectors and sanitation workers went on strike last week and recently voted to extend the strike until at least Monday. The crisis has led to political infighting between ministers and Paris city authorities over how to respond.

About half of Paris’ neighborhoods – including some of the wealthiest – are serviced by municipal waste collectors and cleaners, while private service providers are responsible for the other half. Private sector workers are still working, but strikers are blocking three waste incinerators outside Paris, so some of the waste that is collected has nowhere to go. Some residents have not had their waste collected for more than a week, so they have filed a report noxious odors and rats in their streets.

Rats are a problem in Paris, even with regular garbage collection: In July, the French National Academy of Medicine said in a public health warning that Paris has a ratio of 1.5 to 1.75 rats per capita – making it a of the 10 most contaminated cities in the world.” Sewage rats can transmit zoonotic diseases to humans through their feces or through bites and scratches and pose a “threat to human health,” the academy said.

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Garbage bags piling up on the street, especially from food waste restaurants and bars, are more likely to attract rats. Beaune told television station France 2 that the strike is now “a public health and sanitation issue”.

Jean-François Rial, president of the Paris tourism office, told Agence France-Presse that the situation is also “not optimal for foreign visitors” – an issue that could soon become a concern as Paris prepares to host of the 2024 Olympic Games. Online, Parisians shared humorous memes calling the rat the new official mascot of the Paris Games.

The government said it had officially instructed the Paris police chief to use his power under French law to force certain critical workers to stop striking and return to work, a move Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo opposed.

Hidalgo — who is a member of the left-wing Socialist Party and unsuccessfully ran for president against Macron last year — has expressed support for the strike. Her first deputy, Emmanuel Gregoire, said City Hall has hired private firms to clear space on sidewalks so the trash doesn’t become a safety hazard.

“Nobody is excited about this situation,” said Gregoire, calling Paris and other cities “victims” of the government’s refusal to engage unions on pension reforms.

Macron, who was re-elected for a second term last year, has faced fierce opposition from trade unions and workers to his plan to reform France’s pension system. He dropped out of an attempt to overhaul the pension system in 2019 despite protests and after the pandemic started. Experts now say he is betting his political legacy on the success of this reform.

Under the current proposal, the minimum retirement age would be gradually increased from 62 to 64 years. Each generation born after September 1, 1961 will work three months longer than the previous one, while most people born after 1968 will have to work until they turn 64. to receive their full state pension. Certain employees, including garbage collectors, will work fewer hours. The proposal would also force more workers to pay into the system longer — from ages 42 to 43 — before they qualify.

Macron says the reform is necessary to fund pensions as life expectancy rises and to keep France economically competitive as many countries raise their own retirement ages. Critics say Macron is out of touch with the realities of French workers’ lives, and workers will suffer the most.

Strikes over the issue have disrupted public transportation services to power stations for weeks.

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The proposal was passed by the French Senate on March 11, but the National Assembly failed to approve it by the deadline. It will now be examined by a committee made up of legislators from both chambers, with the aim of reconciling disagreements in order to present a text to parliament that can gain enough support to be voted into law. The committee began its work on Wednesday and a vote will be held on Thursday.

If both chambers cannot agree, under the French constitution, Macron’s government has the option of passing the reform without a vote. This move would likely be unpopular and the government has said it hopes to avoid it.

In the meantime, the battle of wills between the workers, the city and the government seems to continue, with residents holding on to the sack.

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