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Paris streets full of garbage amid pension strike


The City of Light is losing its luster with tonnes of rubbish piling up on Paris pavements as sanitation workers strike for the 9th day on Tuesday. The creeping outrage is the most visible sign of widespread anger over a bill to raise France’s retirement age by two years.

The stench of rotting food began to escape from several garbage bags and overflowing trash cans. The strike did not spare either the Left Bank Palace, which houses the Senate, or across town, a street a few steps away from the Elysée Palace, where trash from the presidential residence appears to be piling up.

On Tuesday, more than 7000 tons of garbage was accumulated. Some of them were seen being loaded into white trucks from a private company along the protest route ahead of Wednesday’s planned march, the third in nine days. Police said the cleanup was done for safety reasons.

Other French cities also have garbage problems, but the mess in Paris, France’s showcase, quickly became a symbol of the strikers’ discontent.

“It’s a bit much because it was even difficult to navigate” some of the streets, said 24-year-old British visitor Nadia Turkay after walking around the French capital. He added that it was “sad to be honest” because “in the beautiful streets… you see all the rubbish and everything. The smell.”

Türkay, however, sympathized with the striking workers and saw their distress as “a good cause”.

Even the strikers themselves, who include garbage collectors, street sweepers and underground sewer workers, are worried about what Paris will become in their absence.

“It makes me sick,” said Gursel Durnaz, who has been on the pickets for nine days. “There are trash cans everywhere, there are things everywhere. People can’t pass by. We are fully aware.”

But, he added, all that remains for President Emmanuel Macron is to withdraw his plan to raise the pension age in France, “and Paris will be clean in three days.”

Strikes have intermittently disrupted other sectors, including transport, energy and ports, but Macron remains undaunted as his government tries to push an unpopular pension reform bill through 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 health sector.

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

“What makes France turn around are the invisible jobs… We are unfortunately among the invisible people,” said Jamel Ouchen, who cleans the streets in a posh Paris district. 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 day,” Ouchen said.

Health is the main issue in the health sector, which is officially recognized at the current early retirement age of 57, although many people work longer to increase their pensions. With the exception of sewage workers, there are no long-term studies to support widespread claims of reduced life expectancy for sanitation workers.

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

“Mr Macron wants us to die on the job,” said Frédéric Obis, a sewer worker and member of the executive committee of the sanitation section of the left-wing CGT union, which has been at the forefront of the mobilization against the pension plan.

The stakes will be high on Wednesday for both the government and the striking workers. The trade unions are organizing their eighth national protest march since January. The action is scheduled 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 chambers for a vote on Thursday.

But nothing is certain and the ticking clock seems to fuel the attackers’ resolve.

Durnaz, 55, is among pickets at the incinerator south of Paris, one of three serving the capital, all of which have been locked down since March 6. He has only been home twice to see his wife and three children. “It’s cold, it’s raining, it’s windy,” he said.

Even if the bill becomes law, “we have other options,” Durnaz said. “This is not over yet.”

“Nothing is written in stone,” union official Obis added. He cited an unpopular 2006 law to boost youth employment that was pushed through by then-prime minister Dominique de Villepin despite mass student protests that sparked a political crisis. Months later, it was abandoned in a parliamentary vote.

If pension reform is voted down, “Something will happen,” Obis said. “It is sure and certain.”

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