Garbage Mounts in Odorous Last Stand Against France’s Pension Change
Mounds of food waste piled in view of the Eiffel Tower. Small cobblestone streets lined with overflowing garbage bins. The bank of the Seine skirted by heaps of trash.
For more than a week now, garbage workers in parts of Paris and other cities across France have been on strike, protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the age when most workers begin collecting a government pension to 64, from 62.
The refuse rising in insalubrious piles, some taller than the pedestrians trying to avoid them, is a smelly, visceral symbol of popular outrage at the government’s plan. It also serves as a physical reminder of the hardship of professions not suited for old age, garbage workers say.
“You can see our work all over Paris,” said Alain Auvinet, 55, picketing at the garbage incinerator on the city’s western edge where he has worked for 35 years. “We held huge protests. The government didn’t listen. Instead, it gave us the finger. This is our last way of pushing back.”
After two months of political debates, large protests in towns and cities across the country, and scattered strikes, the final decision on France’s pension system is likely to be made this week. On Wednesday, a joint committee of lawmakers from both parliamentary houses will meet to hammer out a common version of the proposed law. Should that happen, the bill will move back to the Senate and National Assembly for final approval on Thursday.
The big question is whether President Macron has assembled enough support from outside his hodgepodge centrist political party to secure the vote in the National Assembly, where it no longer holds a strong majority. If not, the next question is whether Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne would instead use her constitutional power to force the bill into law without a vote, exposing the government to a no-confidence motion.
Either way, few expect to see the week’s end with France retaining a retirement age of 62.
“I support the strikers,” said Dawoud Guenfoud, looking out at a slalom course of overflowing garbage bins lining the sidewalk outside the decorations and gift store he manages near Place de la Madeleine. “But, I think the reform is going to pass.”
The French enjoy one of the most generous retirement systems in Europe. Built after World War II as part of the country’s lauded social protection system, the complex pension program offers what many consider a golden — and lengthy — third stage of life, to explore passions, enjoy grandchildren and volunteer while enjoying a standard of living on par with or better than the general population. As many workers like garbage collectors argue, it is also seen as a time to recuperate from a lifetime of arduous labor.
Mr. Macron’s government argues the retirement age must be pushed up to keep the system solvent. Current workers and their employers pay for the pensions of retirees, but with people living longer and the number of pensioners growing, the system faces long-term deficits.
But even the official body tasked with monitoring France’s pension system has acknowledged that there is no immediate threat of bankruptcy, and unions and left-wing opponents have accused Mr. Macron of ignoring other ways of increasing funding, including taxes on the wealthy.
From the beginning, opinion polls have shown that a large and relatively unwavering majority of French people oppose the change. Millions have poured out into the street for seven national protest marches, with another planned for Wednesday.
While the country’s eight leading unions have joined together in a relatively rare show of unity to oppose the change, so far they have little to show for their actions. Mr. Macron declined to meet with them last week, arguing that he did not want to circumvent the parliamentary debates.
The garbage workers’ strike seems like the last, furious stand before the vote.
“This is not what I expected Paris to look like,” said Martina Stengina, 18, a German university student, stepping out of a taxi and maneuvering her bright red suitcase around a sprawling jumble of garbage in the middle of the street in the city’s eastern end, where she had rented an apartment. “I just hope this doesn’t bring rats into our place,” she said, as one of her friends posed for a selfie in front of the trash.
Georgina Pillement, 32, surveyed the piles of garbage outside her office building near Place Vendôme during a smoke break.
“France is supposed to be a leader in ecology,” said Ms. Pillement, who works at a green investment firm. “The Olympic Games are just a year away. This makes me a bit worried.”
The workers went on strike more than a week ago in cities across the country, including Le Havre, Nantes, Antibes and Rennes. In Paris, about half of the city has been affected, from the swanky 16th arrondissement, to the city’s historic intellectual heart in the Latin Quarter and working-class residential areas in the east.
On Monday, some 5,600 metric tons of garbage remained uncollected on the street, according to Paris city hall. Workers at all three incinerators that burn the city’s garbage are also striking.
Relishing the chance to redirect the anger, some national government ministers attacked the Paris city administration for not picking up the garbage.
Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Grégoire responded by saying that Mr. Macron’s government was responsible. He expressed sympathy for garbage workers who have lower life expectancy than business executives, saying two more years of work “counts a lot.”
“The best way to get them back to work is to withdraw the retirement reform bill,” he said.
Few people think that will happen. The government is expected to force its plan through, no matter how unpopular.
“You no longer lead, you no longer seek to obtain the consent of the people,” declared François Ruffin, a far-left lawmaker with the France Unbowed party, during a question period in the National Assembly on Tuesday. “You are crushing a democracy that you should heal, you are damaging a country that needs to be repaired.”
Ms. Borne, the prime minister, responded that her government had already consulted widely, and expected the support of a majority that “believes in the pension system” and “wants to guarantee that youth will benefit from it.”
If the bill becomes law, it is unclear whether huge protests would continue, and what long-term ramifications that would have, if any, for Mr. Macron and his government.
Some political analysts predict the protests will dissipate, but that a bitterness will drive voters to punish Mr. Macron’s party, first in next year’s European Parliament elections.
“People won’t mobilize for a law that’s already been voted on by the Parliament because French workers recognize the legitimacy of Parliament that results from universal suffrage,” said Guy Groux, a sociologist at Sciences Po. “The most likely outcome is that unions will say, ‘If the law is passed, there will be political repercussions at the ballot box.’”
However, the public garbage workers in Paris voted on Tuesday to continue striking for another week, regardless of the vote. Many of them, like people across France, see the planned change as a threat to their way of life and values.
“France is a country of solidarity. We are losing that, bit by bit,” said Mr. Auvinet, the picketing worker, who hopes to still retire early at 57, like most garbage workers under the current system in France. Under the government’s plan, that age would be pushed gradually to 59.
Standing beside him before a fire set in a metal container outside the dormant incinerator in Issy-les-Moulineaux, his colleague Vincent Pommier, 27, agreed: “We believe in living, not surviving. We aren’t numbers. We aren’t beasts.”
Tom Nouvian and Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.