A protracted strike by rubbish collectors has added a new twist to France’s festering dispute over pension reform as the battle over President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular reform enters a make-or-break week with tonnes of uncollected garbage piling higher by the day.
“When the rubbish collectors go on strike, the trashers are indignant.” Jacques Prévert’s iconic play on words has long been a favourite slogan of the French left – and indeed of all advocates of workers’ right to lay down their tools in protest.
Two months into a bitter tussle over pension reform, and with garbage piling up in the streets of Paris and other cities, the French poet’s words resonate with a festering labour dispute that opponents of Macron’s reform have successfully reframed as a battle for social justice.
The fight over Macron’s flagship – and deeply unpopular – pension overhaul has now entered the final stretch, moving through tricky political territory in parliament even as unions and protesters continue to challenge it in the street.
At its heart is a plan to raise the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and stiffen requirements for a full pension, which the government says is required to balance the books amid shifting demographics. Unions, however, say the proposed measures are profoundly unfair, primarily affecting low-skilled workers who start their careers early and have physically draining jobs, as well as women with discontinuous careers.
A week of strike action by dustbin collectors has resulted in some 5,600 tonnes of garbage piling up across the French capital, including in front of the right-wing-dominated Senate, which gave the pension reform its preliminary backing in a late-night vote on Saturday.
But the plan to raise France’s minimum retirement age faces further hurdles in parliament later this week – with rubbish piles growing by the day, the smell of decaying food wafting in the wind, and only late-winter temperatures sparing Parisians a greater stench.
Betraying France’s essential workers
The government, trade unions, and Paris city officials have been trading the blame for allowing the streets of the world’s most visited city to be fouled, with tourist hotspots among the areas affected by the strike.
In a flurry of tweets on Sunday, Sylvain Gaillard, a lawmaker from Macron’s ruling Renaissance party, urged Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s left-leaning administration 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 slammed the municipality’s “contempt for Parisians”. The next day, Gabriel Attal, the junior budget minister, accused Hidalgo of encouraging the city’s employees to go on strike.
Paris officials were quick to fire back, laying the blame squarely on the government’s shoulders.
“Rubbish collectors worked throughout the pandemic; it took this infamous pension reform for them to lay down their tools,” Ian Brossat, a deputy mayor of Paris, hit back in a tweet. “And how does the government thank them? With two more years of work!”
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 not surprised to see the government “turn its back” on the essential workers it championed at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I think the public was truly grateful, but we also knew those in power would not live up to their word,” said the 46-year-old representative of the CGT trade union, manning the picket line along with a few dozen colleagues.
Rubbish collectors can currently retire from the age of 57 owing to the particularly tough nature of their jobs, while sewage workers can leave at 52. According to the CGT, both categories will have to work two more years under the government’s planned reform, a prospect Devaux says is untenable.
“I can assure you that spending three to four hours down in the sewers, as we do on an average day, is like working 48 hours round-the-clock,” he explained. “I know plenty of colleagues who are physically crushed by the time they reach their mid-40s. Some die even before retirement while many more fall critically ill soon after.”
According to studies by the IRNS health watchdog, sewage workers are twice as likely to die before the age of 65 as the rest of the population. The huge discrepancy reflects broader inequalities affecting blue-collar workers, who stand to lose most from the planned pension overhaul.
Should the reform pass, Devaux added, “there will be more and more of us who never get to enjoy the pension they deserve”.
The perceived inequity of Macron’s pension reform has touched a raw nerve in a country that has the word “égalité” (equality) enshrined in its motto. Talk of its unfairness has been a key driver of the mass protests that brought millions to the streets in cities, towns and villages across the country, drawing from well beyond the ranks of the left.
The notion of pénibilité (arduousness) in particular has been a recurrent theme, with protesters lamented the government’s refusal to acknowledge the hardship endured by low-income workers who perform physically-draining tasks. Macron has in the past said he was “not a fan” of the word pénibilité, “because it suggests that work is a pain”.
In January, more than a hundred public figures, including last year’s Nobel literature laureate Annie Ernaux, signed a petition denouncing a reform that “runs contrary to the history of social progress, (…) hitting hardest those who work in the most difficult, physically and psychologically demanding jobs, and who are less likely to enjoy a peaceful retirement and imagine a future after the age of 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 broad majority of the French has also expressed support for strikes that have disrupted schools, public transport and fuel deliveries.
At the picket line in Ivry, Devaux said the public had been broadly supportive of their struggle, “directing their wrath at the government that caused this situation in the first place”.
“Our job is to keep Paris clean – none of us are happy to see rubbish pile up,” he said. “But the public understand that this is the only tool we have to defend our rights.”
Over in central Paris, pastry chef Romain Gaia offered support for the rubbish collectors even as he complained of rats and mice gathering around smelly piles of trash. “They are quite right to strike,” he told AFP. “Normally they have no power, but when they lay down their tools, that’s when they have power.”
Despite promises to “grind the economy to a halt”, France’s united front of trade unions has so far proved powerless to stop the pension reform in its tracks, while the ebbing number of protesters who turned out at rallies on Saturday led some analysts to suggest their momentum may be fading.
Still, the scale of opposition to the reform has piled the pressure on ministers and lawmakers alike, adding to the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of looming votes.
Unions are planning more strikes and an eighth round of nationwide protests on Wednesday, the day the pension reform heads to a committee of seven senators and seven lower-house lawmakers. They will aim to find a compromise between the two chambers’ versions of the legislation.
If the committee reaches a deal, the approved text will be put to a vote the following day in both the Senate and the National Assembly. However, the outcome in the latter chamber, where Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority last year, is hard to predict, with the government dependent on support from conservative lawmakers in the opposition.
At the weekend, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne tweeted her optimism that the measure would be “definitively adopted in the coming days”. She is hoping the government won’t have to resort to a special constitutional option, known as the “article 49.3”, that would force the pension reform through without a vote.
Borne has used that mechanism 10 times before, but invoking it for such a sensitive issue would be seen as an explosive move, almost certainly triggering a no-confidence motion that many opposition parties would be tempted to support.
That prospect means the government effectively faces a choice between two gambles, the conservatives’ top senator Bruno Retailleau quipped on Sunday: “Either playing Russian roulette (with a vote on the bill) or firing the Big Bertha gun (and facing a no-confidence vote)”.