Garbage dulls the shine of Paris as pension strikes continue

PARIS (AP) – The City of Light is losing its luster with tons of rubbish piling up on Paris sidewalks as sanitation workers went on strike for a ninth day on Tuesday. The creeping neglect is the most visible sign of widespread anger at a bill to raise France’s retirement age by two years.

The stench of rotting food emanates from some garbage bags and overflowing garbage cans. Neither the Palace on the Left Bank, which houses the Senate, nor the Elysée Palace across the street, which appears to be storing waste from the presidential residence, was spared the strike.

More than 7,000 tons of garbage had accumulated by Tuesday. Some of it was seen thrown into white trucks by a private company along the protest route ahead of a planned march on Wednesday, the third in nine days. The clean-up was done for safety reasons, police said.

Other French cities also have litter problems, but the chaos in Paris, France’s showcase, has quickly become emblematic of the strikers’ discontent.

“It’s a bit too much because even some streets were difficult to navigate,” said 24-year-old British visitor Nadiia Turkay after touring the French capital. She added that it was “annoying, to be honest,” because on “nice roads … you see all the junk and everything. The smell.”

Turkay nonetheless sympathized with striking workers and accepted their discomfort as “for a good cause”.

Even the strikers themselves, who include garbage collectors, street cleaners and underground sewer workers, are worried about what will become 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 don’t come by. We are fully aware of that.”

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

Strikes have at times hampered other sectors such as transport, energy and ports, but Macron remains undaunted as his government presses ahead with trying to get the unpopular pension reform through Parliament. The bill would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 for most people and from 57 to 59 for most people in the sanitation sector.

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

“What is turning France around is the invisible jobs. … Unfortunately, we belong to the invisible people,” said Jamel Ouchen, who sweeps the streets in a chic Parisian district. He suggested politicians attend a “discovery day” to learn firsthand what it takes to keep the city clean.

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

Health is a major concern within the sanitation sector, which is officially recognized with the current early retirement age of 57, although many people are working longer to increase their pensions. With the exception of sewage workers, there appear to be no long-term studies to support widespread claims of reduced life expectancy among sanitation workers.

However, health reasons were behind Ali Chaligui’s decision to swap his job as a garbage collector for an office position in logistics. Chaligui, 41, says ten years later he’s still suffering from after-effects including tendonitis, shoulder and ankle problems.

“Monsieur Macron wants us to die at work,” said Frederic Aubisse, a 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 plan.

It’s going to be busy on Wednesday both for the government and for striking workers. The unions have been organizing their eighth nationwide protest march since January. The action is scheduled to coincide with a closed meeting of seven senators and seven lawmakers from the House of Commons who will attempt to reach a 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 ticking clock seems to have fueled the strikers’ resolve.

Durnaz, 55, is among the pickets at an incinerator south of Paris, one of three serving the capital – all blocked since March 6. He has only been home twice to see his wife and three children. “It’s cold, it’s raining, the wind is blowing,” he said.

Even if the bill becomes law, “we have other options,” Durnaz said. “It’s not over.”

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

If pension reform gets voted through, “things will happen,” Aubisse said. “That is safe and certain.”


Alex Turnbull in Paris contributed to this.

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