PARIS – Striking sanitation workers in Paris began returning to work Wednesday, ending one of the most enduring symbols of opposition to French President Emmanuel Marcon’s unpopular pension bill, as nationwide protests also appeared to be winding down.
Awaiting clean-up crews were heaps of trash that had piled up over their weekslong strike beginning March 6, as well as debris from the streets following the tenth nationwide anti-pension reform protests a day earlier.
Trash mounds that reached up to 10,000 tons along the French capital’s streets — matching the weight of the Eiffel Tower — have become a striking visual and olfactory symbol of opposition to Marcon’s plan to raise the retirement age by two years. For most people that means working until 64 once the measure, under examination by the Constitutional Council, is enshrined in law.
Sanitation workers, who had blocked three incinerator plants and garbage truck depots, retire earlier than most people, at age 57 due to their laborious jobs, though many work longer to increase their pension. The new plan would push their retirement age to 59.
Numerous strikers had cited health concerns if they were made to work longer.
In a decision that sent waves of relief among many Paris residents, the powerful CGT union representing sanitation workers announced that the three-week-long strike would be “suspended” as of Wednesday. Crews will join others who were legally requisitioned over the last week to help with the daunting clean-up process.
A statement by the CGT claimed that requisitions of trucks, incinerators and personnel, ordered by the Paris police prefect, had bled the movement, leading to its suspension. But added that “the combat isn't over.”
“It’s good that the trash is collected. It’s very unsanitary, and some residents already have trouble with rats and mice. It can be dangerous if it’s left too long,” said artist Gil Franco, 73.
The suspension of the strike, together with the dwindling protest numbers, is seen by some as the beginning of the end of demonstrations against the pension bill.
“People are getting tired of it. There has been too much violence. Paris is a mess, and I want to get on with normal life,” said Paris resident Amandine Betout, 32, getting her morning croissant in Le Marais district. She said it was a “good thing” that the trash is swept up from the streets, even though the cleanup could take some time.
An artist going by the single name Bisk who has drawn attention for his creative sculptures using trash said his work has added some levity to otherwise tense protests, reminding Parisians about the lighter side of life.
“People come by all serious, then see a monster’s face or a little man and they leave with a smile. People have thanked me for puncturing the mood,” the 30-year-old artist said.
Bisk said he has worked on around 100 trash bin ‘sculptures’ since March 6, creating fantastical monster’s faces with mad eyes or little friendly men — that have garnered a life of their own on social media.
“Everyone is tense, and I’m stopped by police when I’m working as they think I’m going to set fire to the trash – but I’m just doing art,” Bisk said. “I’m not political. I just transform crap into gold.”
Tuesday’s protests in Paris saw dozens of arrests and flare ups of violence, though significantly fewer people participated in the action nationwide.
The Interior Ministry put the number of demonstrators nationwide at 740,000, down from more than 1 million five days ago when protesters voiced their rage at Macron’s order to ram the bill through parliament without a vote.
For unions, the fight against the law is far from over. An eleventh day of action is scheduled for April 6.