Garbage tarnishes Paris luster as pension strike continues

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The City of Light is losing its luster with tons of garbage piling up on Paris sidewalks as sanitation workers were on strike for a ninth day Tuesday. The creeping squalor is the most visible sign of widespread anger over a bill to raise the French retirement age by two years.

The stench of rotting food has begun escaping from some rubbish bags and overflowing bins. Neither the Left Bank palace housing the Senate nor, across town, a street steps from the Elysee Palace, where waste from the presidential residence is apparently being stocked, was spared by the strike.

More than 7,000 tons of garbage had piled up by Tuesday. Some of that was seen being tossed into white trucks from a private company along the protest route ahead of a planned march Wednesday, the third in nine days. Police said the clean-up was for security reasons.

Other French cities are also having garbage problems, but the mess in Paris, the showcase of France, has quickly become emblematic of strikers’ discontent.

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

Turkay nevertheless sympathized with striking workers and accepted her discomfort as being “for a good cause.”

Even the strikers themselves, who include garbage collectors, street cleaners and underground sewer workers, are concerned about what Paris is becoming in their absence.

“It makes me sick,” said Gursel Durnaz, who has been on a picket line for nine days. “There are bins everywhere, stuff all over. People can’t get past. We’re completely aware.”

But, he added, President Emmanuel Macron has only to withdraw his plan to increase the French retirement age “and Paris will be clean in three days.”

Strikes have intermittently hobbled other sectors including transport, energy and ports, but Macron remains undaunted as his government presses ahead with trying to get the unpopular pension reform bill passed in 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.

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

“What makes France turn are the invisible jobs. … We are unfortunately among the invisible people,” said Jamel Ouchen, who sweeps streets in a chic Paris neighborhood. He suggested politicians go on a “discovery day” to learn first-hand what it takes to keep the city clean.

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

Health is a prime concern within the sanitation sector, officially acknowledged with the current early retirement at 57, though many people work longer to increase their pensions. With the exception of sewage workers, there appear to be no long-term studies to confirm widespread claims of shortened life expectancy among sanitation workers.

Still, health reasons were behind Ali Chaligui’s decision to switch his job as a garbage collector for an office position in logistics. Chaligui, 41, says he still suffers after-effects 10 years later, like tendinitis, shoulder and ankle problems.

“Monsieur Macron wants us to die on the job,” said Frederic Aubisse, a sewer worker and member of the executive committee of the sanitation section of the leftist CGT union, at the forefront of the mobilization against the pension plan.

The stakes will be high on Wednesday for both the government and striking workers. Unions are organizing their eighth nationwide protest march since January. The action is timed to coincide with a closed-door meeting of seven senators and seven lower-house lawmakers who will try to reach a consensus on the text of the bill. Success would send the legislation back to both houses for voting on Thursday.

But nothing is certain, and the ticking clock appears to have fed the determination of strikers.

Durnaz, 55, is among those on the picket line at an incineration plant 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 rains, there’s wind,” he said.

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

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

If the pension reform is voted through, “Things will happen,” Aubisse said. “That’s sure and certain.”

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