Last week, the national union representing waste and sanitation workers in France gave notice of an encore round of strikes set to start the day before the next step of the unpopular retirement reform’s legislative process: this Friday, April 14, the Conseil constitutionnel is expected to either validate or suppress all or some of the bill that had elicited the fury of the French public by bypassing the parliamentary vote back in March.
After persistent attempts by the Paris police prefecture to unblock the incineration plants and individually requisition waste collection employees to return to work, it seemed that the curtains had ultimately fallen on the stars of the movement that took off earlier this year in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s retirement reform. Towards the end of March, the syndicate announced that there will be an intermission to its strike due to dwindled participation. Since then, the streets of Paris have been gradually cleared of the ephemeral found-object sculptures that had formed since the public sector waste collection stopped on March 6.
It appears the union may be making good on its promise to prepare for an even stronger walkout following discussions with its members. Not mere improvised space object work, the coordinated artistic action by waste collection union members, and the accompanying visually striking and physically imposing pieces it created had been possibly more effective at making a statement than the reduction in other public services. In the post-lockdown world of remote work, ride-share apps, and pre-negotiated “minimum service,” the interruptions in public transportation had not been nearly as disruptive as during the months-long strike in 1995, which too was largely in reaction to a proposed retirement reform. Utilizing Paris itself as the backdrop and the heaping piles of garbage as props, the halt in waste collection expressed the anger and disgust towards the government and the president for even suggesting, let alone forcing through, a reform to extend the French people’s working lives to fix an annual pension plan deficit that is projected to be 10 billion euros by 2027. This wasn’t the tyranny of the majority Tocqueville warned them about; this was tyranny without so much as democracy.
Though the reform had been broadly disliked since it was first proposed in January, the public reaction was not as acrimonious at the beginning of the mobilization against it. The overarching vibe of the daytime syndicate demonstrations at Invalides just the day before the intended vote by the Assemblée nationale was not much unlike that of a pre-football game tailgate party. Participants in their colorful union vests congregated amidst balloons and flags and chatted with their colleagues over workout music blasting from stereo sets and the occasional firecracker bang. In an admirable display of entrepreneurship, one man installed a stand to sell hot drinks and Heineken to the protestors.
That Thursday afternoon, it was announced that Prime Minister Élizabeth Borne had invoked the French Constitution’s Article 49.3 to circumvent a vote by the Assemblée nationale on the retirement reform bill. Within a couple of hours, demonstrators were marching toward the Assemblée nationale, and the impromptu protests that unfolded took on an angrier tone than the previous demonstrations.
But while metro stops were blocked that following Saturday night in the vicinity of the protests at the Place d’Italie and Place de la Concorde, it was weekend as usual in the rest of Paris, with the regular revelers filling cafes and lining up for shows. Yet, the accumulated mounds of trash served as a reeky reminder that the French capital would be starting the business week with votes of no-confidence on its Parliament’s table.
It wasn’t until the government’s narrow survival of the two motions of censures that Monday that the protests against the reform became markedly hostile. University campuses were shut down, and unplanned evening and night protests became banned under prefecture decrees. The delayed notification of these decrees was later judged by the Paris administrative court to be hindering the exercise of the right to an effective remedy, a fundamental right provided for in Articles 6 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, it can’t be said that all have been sympathetic to those going on strike and protesting the retirement reform. It doesn’t help that the retirement regime amendments that were submitted to the Assemblée nationale, now considered to have been adopted, are not exactly in a format that is easily comprehensible and thereby inclined to be confusing. Consequently, it is unsurprising that the narrative has often been summarized in diluted form as raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, bringing it closer to that of its G7 compatriots (whose retirement social security benefits currently kick in between ages 65 and 67). While that may be true for most of France’s workers, 43 years of contributions are required for full retirement benefits. This raise from 41.5 years was originally planned under former President François Hollande to occur in 2035 but, through the new reform, is going to be fast-tracked to be in force by 2027.
Nevertheless, the age at which full-rate pension benefits are disbursed even with incomplete contributions will remain at 67 for most retirees. For some, such as civil servants who perform physically demanding positions in waste collection, the age at which they become entitled to earn full-rate pensions is lower. The profession, when in the public sector, is included in an “active category,” which benefits from early retirement ages due to the inherent “painful” nature of these jobs.
Despite terms like “active category” becoming buzzwords in the French media this past month, it is unclear if the effects of the reform on special retirement schemes have been clearly and accurately communicated to those directly affected, as well as to the rest of the public. This may have further polarized the opinions on the waste collection strikes — some netizens and media outlets are supportive of maintaining lower retirement ages for those in “painful” jobs, while others believe the effects of the reform insufficiently justify the strikes in the industry.
Paradoxically, the French government’s own news publication from January outlining the then-proposed bill notes that there would be “no change for civil servants in active categories and soldiers, who can always leave earlier,” although the French Ministry of Labor’s FAQ on the reform answers that the age for full-rate pensions for civil servants in the active categories “will also be shifted by 2 years.” This contradiction may be attributed to some inaccuracy in both statements.
In the present version of Article L. 24 I 1° of the civil and military retirement pension code, civil servants who perform at least 17 years of “active category” work may retire and start to collect their pensions at the age of 57. (Pensions for civil servants who work less than the required 17 minimum years of service for full-rate pensions will continue to adhere to the formula that factors ratio of years of service against the minimum.)
Article 7 I 1° of the retirement amendments modifies the first paragraph of Article L. 161-17-2 of the social security code, changing the retirement age for those born in 1968 and later to be 64. Article 7 III 5° c) of the retirement amendments adds text to the second paragraph of Article L. 24 I 1° of the civil and military retirement pension code, providing that civil servants who serve at least 17 years in active category work can begin to collect pension at the age mentioned in the first paragraph of Article L. 161-17-2 of the social security code decreased by five years. Thus, under the newly adopted bill, retirement age increases to 59 for civil servants in the active category.
Article 7 III 4° of the retirement amendments sets up in the civil and military retirement pension code an Article L.14 bis, which second enumerated paragraph states that for civil servants benefiting from a right to leave under the second paragraph of Article L. 24 I 1° of the civil and military retirement pension code, full-rate retirement is awarded at the anticipated age mentioned in the same second paragraph increased by three years. Therefore, the age at which civil servants who performed an active category job for a minimum of 17 years can obtain full-rate pension remains unchanged at 62.
Only waste collection workers in civil servant positions benefit from the lower standard retirement age and lower age at which full-rate pensions kick in. For those who are employed by private waste collection businesses, the reform pushes the age they may begin to collect their pensions from 62 to 64, and like other private sector employees generally, their age to be eligible to collect full-rate pensions with incomplete contributions remains at 67.
Municipal civil servants provide household waste collection services in 10 of the 20 Paris districts; private waste management companies are hired in the other half of the boroughs under a public administrative service regime. According to a story by TF1Info, waste collection workers employed in the private sector work 5 hours less per week and are paid on average 150 euros more per month. It was only some days before the preceding strike was suspended that the largest private household waste collection business in Paris, which services five of the boroughs, joined in. Prior to joining their publicly employed colleagues, Derichebourg had been hired by the city to provide “emergency” waste removal in the boroughs normally serviced by civil servants. However, the company ended the supplemental services after waste collection workers employed elsewhere threatened to block Derichebourg’s private incinerator.
But this clash between the public and private sectors does not overshadow the spirit of solidarity that has pervaded since January. And maybe it’s this national conviction that had the Parisians, if not actively support, at least tolerate for weeks on end the looming towers of trash in a city where the parks have signs reminding people to refrain from littering to keep rat infestations under control. Civil servants cannot be paid for work when they are on strike, meaning those who erected the temporary landmarks in protest of the reforms have funded the construction out of their own pockets. If the monuments make a return this Thursday, they will also be representing the sentiment of those who wish, but cannot afford, to make the same stand.
To an outsider, the recent events give the impression that France has extraordinarily high expectations of its leaders; the government and state are counted upon to act as benevolent authoritarians, while simultaneously yielding to the will of their people. It’s as if the French have an almost inexorable need for some semblance of equality and conceivably an even stronger bias in favor of the underdogs than Americans do. Yet, this hatred of unfairness is what sparked a fellowship between those more impacted by the reform and those who are less personally affronted by it, an unanimity between the haves and have-nots that perhaps is to be envied outside of France, regardless of the Conseil constitutionnel’s upcoming ruling on the retirement reform’s constitutionality.
Yang Lan is writing from Paris, where she is studying towards a joint law degree from the University of Pittsburgh and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.