The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

City of ... Garbage? Paris, amid strikes, is drowning in trash.

People walk past garbage near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Sunday. (Michel Euler/AP)
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Mountains of trash bags block off streets. Rats and pigeons gnaw at baguettes on the sidewalks. A persistent, noxious smell permeates the air.

This is Paris in 2023. The City of Light and Love has transformed into the City of Garbage after trash collectors went on strike more than a week ago to protest the French government’s plan to raise their retirement age. Now, some 7,000 tons of trash are piling up on Paris sidewalks, the city says, with no one to collect it and many residents anxious for solutions.

France’s capital “has become a giant, open-air trash can,” said Transport Minister Clément Beaune.

Paris was littered with trash as the French government’s proposed pension reform has led municipal trash collectors to go on strike for the tenth day. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

The crisis is likely to come to a head this week, when French lawmakers debate and vote on the government’s proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, an unpopular reform that President Emmanuel Macron argues is necessary to preserve the country’s social security system.

Under the proposal, trash collectors, who benefit from a special status because their jobs are physically taxing, would see their retirement age increase from 57 to 59. Unions say this is unacceptable. They say trash collectors face more health problems than other workers because they carry heavy loads, are exposed to toxic material and work irregular hours.

In a bid to force the government to back off, municipal trash collectors and sanitation workers went on strike last week and recently voted to extend the strike until at least Monday. The crisis has sparked political infighting between government ministers and Paris city authorities about how to respond.

About half of Paris’s neighborhoods — including some of its wealthiest — are serviced by municipal trash collectors and sanitation workers, while private service providers are responsible for the other half. Private-sector employees are still working, but strikers are blockading three garbage incinerator plants outside Paris, so some of the trash that gets picked up has nowhere to go. Some residents have not had their trash picked up in over a week, leading them to report noxious smells and rats in their streets.

Rats are a problem in Paris even when trash is regularly picked up: In July, the French National Academy of Medicine said in a public health warning that Paris has a ratio of 1.5 to 1.75 rats per inhabitant — making it one of the 10 “most infested cities in the world.” Sewer rats can transmit zoonotic diseases to humans through their droppings or through bites and scratches and are a “threat to human health,” the academy said.

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Trash bags piling up on streets, particularly from restaurants and bars with food waste, are likely to attract more rats. Beaune told television station France 2 that the strike is now “a matter of public health and sanitation.”

Jean-François Rial, president of the Paris tourism office, told Agence France-Presse that the situation is also “not optimal for foreign visitors” — an issue that could soon be of particular concern as Paris prepares to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. Online, Parisians shared humorous memes that dubbed the rat the new official mascot of the Paris Games.

The government said it officially instructed the Paris police chief to use his power under French law to force certain critical workers to stop striking and return to work, a move Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has opposed.

Hidalgo — who is a member of the left-wing Socialist Party and unsuccessfully ran for president last year against Macron — has expressed support for the strike. Her first deputy, Emmanuel Grégoire, said City Hall has hired private firms to clear up space on sidewalks so the trash doesn’t become a security risk.

“No one is thrilled by this situation,” Grégoire said, calling Paris and other cities “victims” of the government’s refusal to engage with unions over pension reforms.

Macron, who was reelected for a second term last year, has faced staunch opposition from unions and workers to his plan to reform France’s pension system. He abandoned an effort to overhaul the pension system in 2019 in the face of protests and after the pandemic began. Now, experts say he is staking his political legacy on the success of this reform.

Under the current proposal, the minimum retirement age would gradually be raised from 62 to 64. Each generation born after Sept. 1, 1961, will work three months longer than the last, while most people born after 1968 will have to work until they turn 64 to receive their full state pension. Certain workers, including trash collectors, will work less. The proposal would also force more workers to pay into the system for longer — from 42 to 43 years — before becoming eligible.

Macron says the reform is necessary to fund pensions as life expectancy rises and to keep France economically competitive, as many countries raise their own retirement age. Critics say that Macron is out of touch with the realities of French workers’ lives and that blue-collar workers will suffer most.

Strikes over this issue have disrupted services from public transport to power plants for weeks.

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The proposal passed the French Senate on March 11, but the National Assembly failed to approve it within the deadline. It will now be examined by a commission made up of lawmakers from both chambers, with the goal of settling disagreements to present a text to Parliament that can garner enough support to be voted into law. The commission began its work Wednesday and a vote is expected Thursday.

If both chambers cannot agree, Macron’s government has the option under France’s constitution of forcing the reform through without a vote. This move would probably be unpopular, and the government has said it hopes to avoid it.

In the meantime, the battle of wills among workers, the city and the government looks set to continue, with residents left holding the bag.