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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Garbage mounts in odorous last stand against France’s pension change

Garbage workers in France have let refuse accumulate in protest of President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the country’s retirement age.

By Catherine Porter

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 met 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 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.

Members of the government believed the “conditions were met” for a majority to approve the bill, its spokesperson, Olivier Véran, said Wednesday. The government was not contemplating using the alternative constitutional force, he said, “but neither are we contemplating abandoning our pension reform plans.”

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.

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 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.

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. Macron declined to meet with them last week, arguing that he did not want to circumvent the parliamentary debates.

On Wednesday, marchers gathered in towns and cities across France to express their final opposition to the bill.

“It’s the last cry, to tell Parliament to not vote for this reform,” said Laurent Berger, the head of the country’s largest union, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, from the protest in Paris on Wednesday afternoon.

He supported the garbage workers, who in Paris have voted to extend their strike into next week.

“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 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 Wednesday, some 7,600 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 Socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and the Paris city administration, which hung two banners in support of the protest movement outside its ornate city hall, for not picking up the garbage.

Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Grégoire responded by saying that 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.

If the bill becomes law, it is unclear whether huge protests would continue, and what long-term ramifications that would have, if any, for Macron and his government.

Some political analysts predict the protests will dissipate, but that a bitterness will drive voters to punish 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.’”

But the specter of pushing the bill through without a vote — though constitutional — strikes many as undemocratic. “The least we can say is that it will be seriously disrespectful of what is happening in the streets and of what public opinion thinks,” said Philippe Martinez, the head of the far-left CGT union, on Wednesday. His workers intended to continue the combat, he said.

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