Paris is drowning in trash as collectors strike for pension reform


Mountains of garbage bags block the streets. Rats and pigeons gnaw the chopsticks on the sidewalks. A lingering and noxious odor permeates the air.

It’s Paris in 2023. The city of light and love has turned into a city of garbage after garbage collectors went on strike over a week ago to protest the French government’s plan to raise the retirement age. From now on, some 7,000 tons of waste are piling up on the Parisian sidewalks, says the city, with no one to pick it up and many residents anxious to find solutions.

The French capital “has become a giant open-air trash can,” said Transport Minister Clément Beaune.

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

The crisis is set to come to a head this week, when 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 preserve the country’s social security system.

According to this proposal, garbage collectors, who benefit from a special status because their work is physically demanding, would see their retirement age increase from 57 to 59 years. The unions find this unacceptable. They say garbage collectors face more health problems than other workers because they carry heavy loads, are exposed to toxic materials and work irregular hours.

In a bid to force the government to back down, municipal garbage collectors and sanitation workers went on strike last week and recently voted to extend the strike until at least Monday. The crisis sparked political wrangling between government ministers and Paris city authorities over how to respond.

About half of Paris’ neighborhoods – including some of the wealthiest – are served by municipal garbage collectors and garbage collectors, while private service providers are responsible for the other half. Private sector employees are still working, but strikers are blocking three garbage incineration plants outside Paris, so some of the garbage collected has nowhere to go. Some residents have not had their trash picked up in over a week, leading them to report noxious odors and rats in their streets.

Rats are a problem in Paris even when garbage is regularly picked up: in July, the French National Academy of Medicine said in a public health warning that Paris had a ratio of 1.5 to 1.75 rats per capita, making it one of the 10 “most infested cities in the world.” Sewer rats can transmit zoonotic diseases to humans through their droppings or through bites and scratches and pose a “threat to human health”, the academy said.

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Trash bags that pile up in the streets, especially in restaurants and bars with food waste, are likely to attract more rats. Beaune told France 2 television that the strike is now “a matter of public health and sanitation”.

Jean-Francois Rial, president of the Paris tourist office, told Agence France-Presse that the situation is also not “optimal for foreign visitors” – an issue that could soon be of particular concern then that Paris is preparing to host the Olympic Games in 2024. Online, Parisians shared humorous memes that dubbed the rat the new official mascot of the Paris Games.

The government said it had formally ordered the Paris police chief to use his power under French law to force some critical workers to stop striking and return to work, a decision the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo objected.

Hidalgo – who is a member of the left-wing Socialist Party and unsuccessfully ran for president last year against Macron – has voiced his support for the strike. His first deputy, Emmanuel Grégoire, said the town hall had hired private companies to clear space on the sidewalks so that litter did not become a safety risk.

“No one is happy with this situation,” Grégoire said, calling Paris and other cities “victims” of the government’s refusal to engage with unions on pension reform.

Macron, who was re-elected to a second term last year, has faced fierce opposition from unions and workers to his plan to reform France’s pension system. He abandoned an effort to overhaul the pension system in 2019 in the face of protests and after the onset of the pandemic. Now, experts say he is banking his political legacy on the success of this reform.

Under the current proposal, the minimum retirement age would gradually increase 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 are 64 years old. to receive their full pension. Some workers, including garbage collectors, will work less. The proposal would also require more workers to contribute to the system for longer – from 42 to 43 years – before becoming eligible.

Macron says the reform is needed to fund pensions as life expectancies rise and to maintain France’s economic competitiveness as many countries increase their own retirement ages. Critics say Macron is out of touch with the realities of life for French workers and that blue-collar workers will suffer the most.

Strikes over this have disrupted public transport services to power stations for weeks.

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The proposal was adopted by the French Senate on March 11, but the National Assembly did not approve it on time. It will now be considered by a committee made up of lawmakers from both chambers, with the aim of settling disagreements to present to Parliament a text that can garner enough support to be voted on. The committee began its work on Wednesday and a vote is expected on Thursday.

If the two chambers fail to agree, the Macron government has the ability under the French constitution to impose the reform without a vote. The move is likely to 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 looks set to continue, with residents left behind.

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