Last-gasp garbage strike seeks to thwart French pension reform
Uncollected rubbish clogged streets in France's capital on Wednesday as unions made a last-minute bid to stop a deeply unpopular pensions reform from being passed.
Opinion polls show that around two-thirds of French people are against the legislation to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, extend contributions for a full pension and scrap some special privileges for public sector employees.
But despite two months of protests and cross-sector strikes, the bill championed by President Emmanuel Macron appears on the verge of being pushed through parliament.
People demonstrated around France on Wednesday, from the northern city of Lille to the southern city of Marseille, in a new day of strikes and protests.
Rallies were largely peaceful except for skirmishes between some protesters and the police, including in Paris and in the western city of Nantes.
Critics say the reform is unfair for low-skilled workers who start working early in life and women who typically stop and start their careers to raise children.
"It's unacceptable," 57-year-old car industry worker Marie-Josee Delautre said in Lille.
Even if the bill is passed, "I will continue to protest," she added.
But police were expecting between 650,000 and 850,000 demonstrators nationwide, a source said on condition of anonymity, far fewer than the largest rallies last week.
- 'It smells' -
The standoff was however visible in the piles of trash dotting Paris, where municipal garbage collectors and cleaners have stopped work since early last week.
Around 7,000 tonnes of rubbish have accumulated on pavements in around half the city, alarming foreign visitors and worrying restaurant owners.
Private companies have continued to collect garbage in the other half of the city.
In a near-empty cafe in central Paris at lunchtime on Wednesday, manager Gregory Brault, 38, said he had seen a definite drop in customers.
"People don't want to eat on a terrace opposite garbage containers. It smells," he said.
He was coming in early to clear the waste from his doorstep, but mounds of trash across the neighbourhood were still keeping office workers and tourists away.
In recent days, people in the area had started to spot rats.
Rubbish collectors voted on Tuesday to extend their walkout until next Monday, causing Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin to demand city authorities order them back to work.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo retorted she had "no power" or intention to do so.
In the energy sector, some workers at power stations were on strike.
Macron's official home in the south of France, the Fort de Bregancon, was among several areas targeted by power cuts, the CFE-CGC union said.
But overall, the strikes appear to be petering out.
Just 15 percent of railway employees had refused to work, a union source said, below half the figure for last week.
The last day of protests on Saturday saw far less people march than in the previous rounds.
- 'Natural majority' -
A parliamentary committee started examining the retirement plan on Wednesday, ahead of a joint vote from the lower National Assembly and the Senate that could come as early as Thursday.
The main question is whether Macron's minority government can muster the required number of votes in the assembly, where it will need the support of the opposition Republicans (LR) party in order to pass the legislation.
Macron's flagship proposal would bring France more into line with EU neighbours, most of which have pushed back the retirement age to 65 or higher.
After initially claiming it was intended to make the system fairer, the government now says it is about avoiding deficits in the coming decades.
Government spokesman Olivier Veran on Wednesday urged members of parliament to support the bill.
"More than ever, the government is seeking a natural majority to back this urgent reform that is crucial for our country," he said.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Tuesday appealed to LR lawmakers to throw their weight behind the bill.
But if she fails to find a workable majority in the lower house, she could use a constitutional power contained in article 49.3 of the constitution, enabling her to ram the legislation through without a vote.
Analysts warn this would deprive her and Macron of democratic legitimacy and would also expose the government to a confidence vote, which it might lose.