France’s capital “has become one giant open-air dustbin,” said Transport Minister Clement Beaune.
The crisis is likely to peak 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 believes is necessary to tighten the country’s social security system receive.
Under the proposal, the retirement age of refuse collectors, who enjoy a special status because of their physically demanding work, would be raised from 57 to 59. The unions find this unacceptable. They say refuse collectors face more health problems than other workers because they carry heavy loads, are exposed to toxic materials and work irregular hours.
To force the government to withdraw, municipal refuse collectors and sanitation workers went on strike last week and recently voted to extend the strike until at least Monday. The crisis has sparked political infighting between government ministers and Paris city authorities over how to respond.
About half of Paris neighborhoods – including some of the most affluent – are served by municipal garbage collectors and sanitation workers, while private service providers are responsible for the other half. Private sector employees are still working, but strikers are blocking three incinerators outside of Paris, leaving some of the garbage that is collected has nowhere to go. Some residents haven’t picked up their trash in over a week, prompting them to come forward noxious smells and rats in their streets.
Rats are a problem in Paris, even with regular rubbish picking up: 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 inhabitant – one of the 10th highest “most contaminated cities in the world.” Sewer rats can transmit zoonotic diseases to humans through their droppings or through bites and scratches and pose a “hazard to human health,” according to the Academy.
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Garbage bags piling up on the streets, especially from restaurants and bars with food waste, are likely to attract more rats. Beaune told France 2 TV that the strike was now “a matter of public health and sanitation”.
Jean-François Rial, president of the Paris Tourist Office, told Agence France-Presse that the situation is also “not ideal for foreign visitors” – an issue that could soon be of particular concern as Paris turns to hosting the 2024 Olympics prepared. Online, Parisians shared humorous memes calling the rat the new official mascot of the Paris Games.
The government said it had officially ordered the Paris police chief to use his powers under French law to force certain critical workers to stop striking and return to work, a move Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has opposed.
Hidalgo – who is a member of the left-wing Socialist Party and ran unsuccessfully against Macron for president last year – has expressed his support for the strike. Her first deputy, Emmanuel Gregoire, said City Hall had hired private companies to clear space on the sidewalks so the trash wouldn’t become a safety hazard.
“No one is excited about this situation,” Gregoire said, calling Paris and other cities “victims” of the government’s refusal to engage with unions on pension reforms.
Macron, who was re-elected to a second term last year, is facing staunch opposition from unions and workers to his plan to reform France’s pension system. In the face of protests and after the pandemic began, he abandoned efforts to overhaul the pension system in 2019. Now, experts say, he is staking his political legacy on the success of this reform.
According to the current proposal, the minimum retirement age is to be gradually raised from 62 to 64 years. Each generation born after September 1, 1961 will work three months longer than the last, while most born after 1968 will have to work until age 64 to receive their full state pension. Certain workers, including garbage collectors, will work less. The proposal would also force more workers to pay longer into the scheme – from 42 to 43 years – before becoming eligible.
Macron says the reform is necessary to fund pensions as life expectancy increases and to keep France economically competitive as many countries raise their own retirement ages. Critics say Macron has no connection to the realities of French workers’ lives and say workers suffer most.
Strikes over the issue have disrupted services from public transport to power plants 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 commission composed of legislators from both houses, with the aim of resolving differences of opinion in order to present parliament with a text that can find enough support to be passed as law. The commission started its work on Wednesday and a vote is expected on Thursday.
If both chambers cannot agree, according to the French constitution, Macron’s government has the option of pushing through the reform without a vote. The move would likely be unpopular and the government has said it hopes to avoid it.
In the meantime, it looks like the battle of wills between workers, the city and the government will continue, with local residents holding the bag.