City of Light or City of Litter?  

Trash, several thousand tons of it, is overflowing in normally elegant Paris, spilling into the capital’s streets and sidewalks, choking bike lanes, attracting rats and triggering a nasty political battle.

France’s uncollected garbage has become the most visible — and smelliest — manifestation of public outrage over a highly controversial bill to boost the retirement age from 62 to 64, which may face a key vote in parliament as early as Thursday.

“It’s really too bad, we’re one of the most visited cities in the world,” said science researcher Manu, who declined to give his surname as he picked his way down a refuse-pocked street in Paris’s trendy 2nd arrondissement. “But unfortunately, it’s one of the few ways to get a reaction from the government.”

In a final push to sink the legislation, thousands of French took to the streets Wednesday, the eighth day strikes against the legislation in recent weeks.

Polls show more than two-thirds of French citizens oppose the pension reform, which President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist government argue is vital to keep the country’s retirement system solvent as the population ages.

Unions and other critics note the system is currently in the black — and that there are other means of keeping it that way.

Getting their due

Wednesday’s strike affected schools, oil refineries, trains and public transit as thousands joined nationwide protests. The majority of French hope the protests will continue even if the legislation is passed, according to a survey for BFMTV by research firm Elabe, suggesting Macron may face a rocky road ahead.

“They’re right,” said another Paris resident, Haddad, of the protesting garbage collectors, even though she works in the tourism industry. “If they don’t do this, they won’t get what’s due to them.”

Like the pension reform, the garbage strike has become a partisan lightening rod. Other French cities are affected, but not as badly as Paris, where nearly 7,000 tons of trash are uncollected.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Rachida Dati, the local mayor of Paris’s elegant 7th arrondissement, have demanded city hall install a minimum collection service — an idea rebuffed by the capital’s leftist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, who supports the garbage strike.

The city’s governing body suspended work for two hours Wednesday so employees could participate in the pensions protest, Le Parisien reported.

“It’s not so much the garbagemen’s strike that’s a problem for me, it’s Anne Hidalgo that’s on strike,” tweeted French Transport Minister Clement Beaune. “She does nothing.”

Still, Paris city hall has announced “palliative measures” to battle rats and unsanitary conditions — like thorough cleaning after outdoor food markets — even as experts worry about mounting health risks. “Hygiene is our top priority,” Deputy Mayor Colombe Brossel told French media.

Political risks

The partisan dispute is also playing out in parliament, where the left and far right adamantly oppose the pension reform bill. President Macron is counting on his centrist alliance and the center-right Les Republicains party to deliver the necessary votes in the Senate and National Assembly. But as of Wednesday, it wasn’t a sure deal.

“We won’t go for a vote if we know we’re going to lose it,” one government official told Le Monde.

A last resort would be the “nuclear option,” as French media describe it: a constitutional tool Macron’s party could use to ram the bill through without a vote. Opposition lawmakers, however, vow to push for a censure motion if that happens, an outcome that would potentially hobble the rest of Macron’s five-year term.

Emerging from work in Paris’s trash-strewn Rue Saint-Denis, Magda Konieczna found some humor amid the squalor. The neighborhood farther north where she lives is picked up by private trash collectors.

“I think it’s very funny, and it’s very French as well,” says Konieczna, who is originally from Poland and supports Macron’s pension bill. “It’s an example of French being so convinced that they are right that they will not collect the trash until the whole city is drowning in it.”

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