Rubbish collectors lead last-ditch strikes against France’s pension reforms

Rubbish collectors are on strike against France's pension reform
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French unions have made an 11th-hour bid to stop the senate passing a deeply unpopular pensions reform. Despite two months of protests and strikes, a bill championed by president Emmanuel Macron is on the verge of passing. The legislation will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, extend contributions for a full pension, and scrap some special privileges for public sector employees. Opinion polls show that around two-thirds of people in France are against it.

The most visible impacts of the stand-off so far are the piles of rubbish on Paris’s streets. Municipal rubbish collectors and cleaners have stopped work since early last week. Around 7,000 tonnes of black bin bags and cardboard boxes have accumulated on pavements and outside restaurants in around half the city. Even in the other half of Paris, where private companies still whisk away refuse, collection has been complicated. Two key incinerators outside the capital are on strike.

Street cleaners voted on 14 March to extend their walkout until 20 March. The result caused France’s interior minister Gerald Darmanin to demand the capital’s municipality order them back to work. However, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo retorted that she had “no power” and no intention of doing so.

Strikes across Paris and France

Several small demonstrations kicked off around France on Wednesday 15 March, including in the northern city of Calais. In a new day of strikes and protests, police said they expected between 650,000 and 850,000 demonstrators nationwide. This is fewer than the largest rallies last week. The walkouts also appeared more limited than in previous days of nationwide action. Nonetheless, some workers stood steadfast in rejecting the changes.

As well as rubbish collectors and cleaners, CGT (General Confederation of Labour) union representative Eric Sellini said several refineries across France were not delivering fuel on Wednesday. Meanwhile, a public transport operator said services would be “very disrupted” between Paris and the suburbs, but only slightly affected inside the city limits. Additionally, just three out of five nationwide high-speed trains were running, national railway operator SNCF (société nationale des chemins de fer français) said. Furthermore, power supplier EDF said power stations around the country had reduced output on 14 March. This is because energy workers fear losing their special privileges to the pensions reform.

Majority backing for pension reform in the senate

A parliamentary committee started examining the retirement plan early on 15 March. This came ahead of a joint vote from the lower National Assembly and the Senate that could come as soon as 16 March. The biggest question over its passage is whether Macron’s minority government can muster the required number of votes in the assembly. Macron will need the support of the opposition Republicans party (LR) in order to pass the legislation.

In a speech to lawmakers on 14 March, prime minister Elisabeth Borne insisted a majority exists in parliament for the changes. She appealed to LR lawmakers, who have long championed pension reform, by saying a vote in favour was “not support for the government”. Borne added:

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A majority exists that is not scared of reforms, even unpopular ones, when they are necessary

If Borne fails to find a workable majority in the lower house, she could use a constitutional power contained in article 49.3 of the constitution. This would enable her to ram the legislation through without a vote. Analysts say this would deprive her and Macron of democratic legitimacy in the face of hostile public opinion, and would also expose the government to a confidence vote that it might lose.

Political scientist Gilles Finchelstein, head of think tank Jean-Jaures Foundation, said using article 49.3 would be a “defeat for Borne, the government and the president”. However, he added that it’s “very unlikely” the government would trigger the article as it would have majority backing.

Changing excuses

The government initially claimed the changes were intended to make the system fairer. However, it is now emphasising they are about savings and avoiding deficits in coming decades. The proposal would bring France more into line with EU neighbours, most of which have pushed back the retirement age to 65 or higher.

Featured image via Reuters/YouTube

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