“When the garbage collectors go on strike, the trashers are outraged.” Jacques Prévert’s iconic pun has long been a favorite slogan of the French left – and indeed of all advocates of workers’ rights to lay down their tools in protest.
Two months after a bitter scramble over pension reform and mountains of rubbish littering the streets of Paris and other cities, the French poet’s words resonate with a simmering industrial dispute that opponents of Macron’s reform have successfully reframed as a struggle for social justice.
The battle over Macron’s flagship — and deeply unpopular — pension revision has now entered its final stages, navigating tricky political terrain in Parliament, even as unions and protesters continue to challenge it on the streets.
At the heart is a plan to raise the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and tighten requirements for a full pension, which the government says is needed to balance the books amid changing demographics. But unions say the proposed measures are deeply unfair and will primarily affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early and have physically demanding jobs, and women with interrupted careers.
>> “I can’t take it anymore”: The French working class bemoans Macron’s move to raise the retirement age
After a week-long strike by rubbish bin collectors, around 5,600 tons of rubbish are piling up in the French capital, including in front of the right-wing Senate, which provisionally supported the pension reform in a late-night vote on Saturday.
But the plan to raise the minimum retirement age in France faces more hurdles in Parliament later this week – with piles of rubbish mounting by the day, the smell of rotting food wafting in the wind and only late winter temperatures sparing Parisians from a bigger stink .
Betrayal of the most important workers of France
The government, unions and Paris city officials have swapped the blame for littering the streets of the world’s most visited city, with tourist hotspots in areas hit by the strike.
In a flurry of tweets on Sunday, Sylvain Gaillard, an MP for Macron’s ruling Renaissance party, called on Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s left-leaning government to “requisition” garbage trucks and incinerators blocked by the strikers, while Olivia Grégoire and Clément Beaune, the junior ministers for tourism and European affairs respectively, both criticized the community’s “contempt for Parisians”. The next day, Deputy Budget Minister Gabriel Attal accused Hidalgo of encouraging city workers to go on strike.
Paris officials quickly fired back, putting the blame squarely on the government’s shoulders.
“Waste collectors have been working throughout the pandemic; They needed this infamous pension reform to put down their tools,” hit back Ian Brossat, a deputy mayor of Paris, in a tweet. “And how does the government thank you? With two more years of work!”
At the Ivry incinerator on the eastern outskirts of Paris, one of three blocked plants processing most of the capital’s waste, sewage worker Julien Devaux said he was not surprised the government was giving the essential workers it was campaigning for “turns his back”. Peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think the public was really grateful, but we also knew that those in power would not keep their word,” said the 46-year-old representative of the CGT union, who manned the picket line with several dozen colleagues.
Garbage pickers can currently retire at 57 because of the particularly hard work, while sewage workers can retire as early as 52. According to the CGT, both categories have two more years to work as part of the government’s planned reform, a prospect Devaux says is unsustainable.
“I can assure you, spending three to four hours in the sewers like we do on an average day is like working 48 hours around the clock,” he explained. “I know many colleagues who are physically exhausted in their mid-40s. Some even die before retirement, while many others become seriously ill shortly thereafter.”
According to studies by the IRNS health authority, sewer workers are twice as likely to die before the age of 65 as the rest of the population. The huge gap reflects broader inequalities affecting workers, who stand to lose the most from proposed pension reform.
If the reform were passed, Devaux added, “an increasing number of us will never get the pensions we deserve.”
The perceived injustice of Macron’s pension reform has hit a sore point in a country that uses the word “elegance’ (equality) enshrined in his motto. Talk of their injustice was a major reason for the mass protests that drew millions of people to the streets in towns and villages across the country and spread far beyond the ranks of the left.
The idea of penility (Exertion) in particular was a recurring theme, with protesters lamenting the government’s refusal to recognize the hardship endured by low-income workers performing physically demanding tasks. Macron has said in the past he is “not a fan” of the word penility“because it suggests that work is a pain”.
In January, more than a hundred public figures, including last year’s Nobel Prize winner for literature, Annie Ernaux, signed a petition denouncing a reform that “contradicts the history of social progress, (…) proposes hardest are those who work the most difficult, physically and psychologically demanding jobs, and who are less likely to enjoy a peaceful retirement and envision a future after age 64.
Polls have consistently shown that more than two-thirds of the country oppose the government’s plans – including a staggering three in four women, according to a recent Elabe poll. A large majority of French have also expressed support for strikes that have disrupted schools, public transport and fuel deliveries.
>> “Not just about pensions”: French demonstrators see Macron’s reform as a threat to social justice
At the picket line in Ivry, Devaux said the public had largely supported their struggle and “turned their anger on the government for causing this situation in the first place”.
“Our job is to keep Paris clean – none of us are happy when rubbish piles up,” he said. “But the public understands that this is the only means we have to defend our rights.”
Over in central Paris, pastry chef Romain Gaia offered to help the garbage collectors, despite complaining about rats and mice congregating around smelly piles of rubbish. “You are absolutely right to strike,” he told AFP. “They don’t normally have power, but when they put down their tools, they have power.”
Despite promises to “bring the economy to a standstill,” France’s unions united front has so far proved powerless to halt pension reform in its tracks, while the dwindling number of protesters who turned up at rallies on Saturday led some analysts to the Assumption prompted their momentum may slacken.
Still, the level of opposition to the reform has increased pressure on ministers and lawmakers alike, increasing uncertainty about the outcome of the upcoming votes.
Unions are planning more strikes and an eighth round of nationwide protests on Wednesday, the day pension reform is tabled by a committee of seven senators and seven lawmakers in the lower house. They will try to find a compromise between the versions of the two chambers of the law.
If the committee reaches agreement, the approved text will go to a vote in both the Senate and the National Assembly the following day. But the outcome in the latter chamber, where Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority last year, is difficult to predict as the government relies on the support of conservative lawmakers in the opposition.
At the weekend, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne tweeted optimistically that the measure would “finally be adopted in the coming days”. She hopes the government will not have to resort to a special constitutional option known as “Article 49.3” that would force pension reform without a vote.
Borne has already used this mechanism ten times, but calling him on such a sensitive issue would be seen as an explosive move and almost certainly trigger a motion of no confidence that many opposition parties would be tempted to support.
That prospect means the government is effectively faced with a choice between two gambles, top Conservative Senator Bruno Retailleau quipped on Sunday: “Either play Russian roulette (with a vote on the bill) or fire the Big Bertha gun (and face a suspicion vote)”.