PARIS - Uncollected rubbish mounted in the streets of Paris on Wednesday and hundreds of thousands of people marched in last-gasp protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform, which is set to go before parliament.
A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in the capital has seen an estimated 7,000 tonnes of trash pile up in unsightly mounds, attracting rats and dismaying tourists.
The strike affecting around half of the city’s districts has been extended until March 20, with private refuse company Derichebourg carrying out emergency collections in some of the worst-affected areas.
But Derichebourg said on Wednesday that it would stop intervening after threats from strikers “to block the entrances and exits to our site if we continued collections for health reasons, which are legal and contractual”, company executive Thomas Derichebourg told AFP.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, an estimated 480,000 people marched to protest the pension reform which seeks to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and extend the minimum contributions needed for a full pension, according to interior ministry figures.
Police clashed with protesters and fired tear gas in Paris, as well as in the cities of Lyon and Nantes.
Workers from the CFE-CGC trade union in the south of France also announced they had cut the electricity supply to a presidential island retreat in the Mediterranean used by Mr Macron for his summer holidays.
Despite the protests and opinion polls showing that two-thirds of French people oppose the changes, the 45-year-old president is hoping to clinch parliamentary backing for the legislation on Thursday.
The Senate and National Assembly are set to hold votes on a compromise bill, with the minority government seeking to secure backing from the opposition Republicans party (LR) for the flagship reform of Mr Macron’s second term.
Success is not certain in the lower house, with the margin of victory possibly coming down to as little as a dozen votes according to some forecasts.
If Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne fails to find a workable majority, she could use a power contained in article 49.3 of the constitution, enabling her to ram the legislation through without a vote.
Analysts say forcing it through by decree would deprive her and Mr Macron of democratic legitimacy and would expose the government to a confidence vote, which it might lose.
Political scientist Gilles Finchelstein, the head of the Jean-Jaures Foundation, a Paris-based think tank, said using article 49.3 would be a “defeat for Borne, the government and the president”.
“But in the short term, it’s a false suspense. Everyone is raising the tension. But it’s very unlikely that the government needs to use the 49.3 because they will have a majority,” he told reporters.
If voted, the question remains whether unions and demonstrators will continue their protests and strikes, or whether the movement will fizzle out – something seen in previous standoffs between Mr Macron and the unions.
The centrist president, a pro-business former investment banker, pushed through changes to labour law, unemployment benefits and the state railways in his first term despite widespread opposition and strikes.
The number of people marching on Wednesday was around 40 per cent of the 1.28 million who demonstrated last Tuesday, according to the interior ministry figures.
“It’s a last cry from the working population to say that we don’t want retirement at 64,” the head of the CFDT union, Mr Laurent Berger, told reporters as he joined a protest march in Paris.
But the outgoing boss of the more radical CGT union, Mr Philippe Martinez, told reporters: “Whatever happens, we need to continue the fight”.
The CGT claimed 1.7 million demonstrators hit the streets on Wednesday.
Garbage collectors are set to continue their stoppages and blockade of the capital’s incinerators until next Monday.
Although Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has urged city authorities to order them back to work, Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo has refused, saying on Wednesday that the protests were “fair”.
Refuse workers can currently retire at 57 if they have the required number of years of contributions.
They say they often have work-related health problems, shorter life expectancy than many workers, and are unable to do the physically demanding lifting in their late 50s.
“We work whether there’s rain, snow or wind,” Mr Nabil Latreche, 44, told AFP.
“When we’re riding behind the truck, we breathe in all sorts of fumes. We often get sick from work.” AFP