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Rubbish piles up in streets of Paris as France’s pension battle enters final stretch

A protracted strike by garbage collectors has added a new twist to France’s festering debate over pension reform, as President Emmanuel Macron’s reform battle enters a make-or-break week with tons of unpaid bills. Garbage collection is getting higher by the day.

“When the garbage collectors strike, the garbage workers are outraged.” Jacques Prévert’s iconic play on words has long been a favorite catchphrase of the French left — indeed, all advocates for the right of workers to put down their tools The same goes for slogans of protest.

As rubbish piles up on the streets of Paris and other cities, the French poet’s words resonate with a festering labor dispute that has raged for two months over pension reform. Opponents of Macron’s reforms have successfully reframing it as a struggle for social justice.

The fight over Macron’s flagship — and wildly unpopular — pension reform is now in its final stages, traversing tricky political territory in parliament, even as unions and protesters continue to challenge it in the streets.

At its center is a plan to raise the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and raise the requirement for a full pension, which the government says is needed to balance the books amid changing demographics. However, unions say the proposed measures are deeply unfair and mainly affect low-skilled workers with early and physically demanding career starts, as well as women whose careers have been interrupted.

>> ‘I can’t take it’: French working class bemoans Macron’s push to raise retirement age

A week-long strike by bin collectors has left some 5,600 tonnes of rubbish piling up in the French capital, including in front of the right-wing-dominated Senate, which initially backed pension reform in a late-night vote on Saturday.

Piles of rubbish litter the banks of the Seine opposite the Eiffel Tower. © Michelle Euler, Associated Press

But a plan to raise France’s minimum retirement age faces more hurdles in parliament later this week – as rubbish piles grow daily and the smell of rotting food wafts on the wind, only to be smelt more strongly by late winter temperatures for Parisians the stench.

Betrayal of France’s Essential Workers

Government, union and Paris city officials have been blaming the streets of the world’s most-visited city for polluted streets, tourist hotspots also affected by the strikes.

In a series of tweets on Sunday, Sylvain Gaillard, a lawmaker from Macron’s ruling Renaissance party, urged Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s left-leaning government to “requisition” garbage trucks and incinerators blocked by strikers, while Junior ministers Olivia Gregoire and Clemente Born, targeting tourism and European affairs respectively, have both slammed the municipality for its “contempt for Parisians”. The next day, Junior Budget Minister Gabriel Attar accused Hidalgo of encouraging the city’s employees to go on strike.

Officials in Paris quickly fought back, putting the blame squarely on the government’s shoulders.

“Garbage collectors have been working throughout the pandemic; it is through this notorious pension reform that they have laid down their tools,” Paris deputy mayor Ian Brossat said in a tweet shot back. “How can the government thank them? Work for another two years!”

At the Ivry incinerator on the eastern edge of Paris, one of three blocked facilities that process most of the capital’s waste, sewage worker Julien Devaux said he was concerned about seeing the government “turn its back” on it at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic .

“I think the public really appreciates it, but we also know that those in power won’t keep their word,” said the 46-year-old CGT union representative, who was on the picket line with dozens of colleagues.

Striking workers took over the incinerator in Ivry-sur-Seine on the edge of Paris.
Striking workers took over the incinerator in Ivry-sur-Seine on the edge of Paris. © Benjamin Dodman, France 24

Due to the particularly demanding nature of the work, garbage collectors can currently retire at age 57, while sewage workers can retire at age 52. According to the CGT, under the reforms planned by the government, both categories will have to work for another two years, promising what Devo said is untenable.

“I can assure you that being in the sewers for three to four hours, like we do every day, is like working 48 hours around the clock,” he explained. “I know a lot of colleagues who have broken down physically in their 40s. Some died before they even retired, and many more died shortly after retirement.”

according to study Sewage workers are twice as likely to die before the age of 65, according to the IRNS health watchdog. The large disparity reflects broader inequalities affecting blue-collar workers, who stand to stand to lose the most from planned pension reforms.

Devaux added that if the reforms were passed, “there will be a growing number of people who will never receive the pension they are entitled to”.

public support

The inequity of Macron’s pension reform has touched a nerve in a country with “equality’ (Equality) is its motto. Talking about its injustice has been a major driver of the massive protests that have brought millions to the streets of cities, towns and villages across the country, with participants far and wide. beyond the ranks of the left wing.

the concept of pénibilité (hard) is a recurring theme in particular, with protesters bemoaning the government’s refusal to acknowledge the hardships endured by low-paid workers in physically demanding jobs.Macron has said in the past that he “doesn’t like” the term pénibilité“because it shows that work is a pain”.

In January, more than a hundred public figures, including Anne Ernor, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, signed a petition Denouncing a reform that “runs counter to the history of social progress, (…) strikes at Those who work the hardest work the toughest, most physically and mentally demanding jobs, and are less likely to enjoy a peaceful retirement or imagine a future beyond age 64.”

Polls consistently show more than two-thirds of the country oppose the government’s plans – including three-quarters of women, according to the most recent Elabe poll. An overwhelming majority of French people also expressed support for strikes disrupting schools, public transport and fuel supplies.

>> ‘Not just pensions’: French protesters see Macron’s reforms as threat to social justice

On the picket line in Ivry, Devo said the public generally supported their fight, “taking out their anger on the government that caused this in the first place”.

“Our job is to keep Paris clean — none of us would like to see mountains of rubbish pile up,” he said. “But the public understands that this is the only tool we have to defend our rights.”

In central Paris, pastry chef Romain Gaia offered support to garbage collectors despite complaints of rats and rats congregating around the stinking rubbish heap. “They were absolutely right to strike,” he told AFP. “Usually they don’t have power, but when they put down their tools, they have power.”

russian roulette

Despite promises to “bring the economy to a standstill”, France’s united union front has so far proved ineffective in stopping pension reforms, and the decline in the number of protesters who attended Saturday’s rally led some analysts to suggest their momentum may be fading.

Still, the scale of opposition to the reforms has put pressure on ministers and lawmakers, adding to uncertainty about the outcome of the upcoming vote.

Unions plan more strikes and an eighth round of national protests on Wednesday, the day pension reform is brought before a committee of seven senators and seven MPs. Their goal is to find a compromise between the two chambers’ versions of the legislation.

If the committee reaches an agreement, the approved text will be voted on in the Senate and National Assembly the next day. However, Macron’s centrist coalition lost its majority last year as the government relies on support from opposition conservative lawmakers, making it difficult to predict the outcome of the latter chamber.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne expressed optimism on Twitter that the measure would be “finally passed in the coming days”. She hopes the government won’t have to resort to a special constitutional option, so-called “section 49.3”, which would force pension reform to pass without a vote.

Borne has used the mechanism 10 times before, but invoking it on such a sensitive issue would be seen as an explosive move that would almost certainly trigger a motion of no confidence that many opposition parties would be tempted to support.

The prospect means the government is effectively faced with a choice between two gambles, with top conservative Senator Bruno Retatleau quipping Sunday: “Play Russian roulette (vote on the bill) or shoot Big Bertha ( In the face of untrustworthy people)vote)”.

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