On March 7, 1884, the newly appointed préfet of the Seine Eugène Poubelle decreed that every Paris apartment building must provide residents with covered containers—soon to be aptly called poubelles (trash bins)—to collect their refuse. Until then, everything from animal and human excrement to food scraps and hospital waste had been dumped directly onto the streets. The fetid black sludge that coated the pavement could disintegrate fabric. Surprisingly (at least by our modern hygienic standards), Poubelle’s decree was met with explosive hostility: Press campaigns, open letters, caricatures, slanders, and satirical songs attacked Poubelle and his poubelles.
Today, almost exactly 139 years later, Parisians are desperate for exactly the opposite. After a three-week trash collectors’ strike, and with over 10,000 tons of garbage piling up across the city, they are longing to get their poubelles up and running again.
The massive accumulation of trash in France’s capital is one of the most visible—and odoriferous—manifestations of the equally massive opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed retirement reform in France, against which millions of people have been demonstrating every week since January. Even after Macron’s government used a constitutional provision to force the reform through without a formal parliamentary vote, the streets are still heaving.
Workers in schools, universities, public transportation, railroads, aviation, oil refineries, gas and electricity, and even nuclear plants have all gone on strike. But press reports and international coverage are fixated on the heaps of black bags walling up entire sidewalks in the City of Light. If the images are gasp-provoking for Emily in Paris fans and make for sensational front-page pictures, the reality on the ground is politically inflammable. Far from the glossy image of the “start-up nation” Macron has tried to sell, France is stuck in a sticky impasse, and so is his administration.
In a nation prone to intense politicization, commentators, activists, and citizens alike have been quick to debate: What is it that truly “stinks,” the pension reform or the trash? For many, the proposed bill—which would postpone the legal retirement age to obtain a full pension from 62 to 64—is what must be thrown out first. According to a March 9, 2023, Ifop survey, a steady 73 percent of active workers remained opposed to the bill two months into the disruptions. (The bill has to be approved by the constitutional court, and even then, the government could still change its mind, though most people don’t think it will.)
Over the weeks, Parisians have learned to slalom briskly around rising mounds of bric-à-brac and rubbish. Taking out the trash, in the absence of any collection service, has become an existential—and political—issue. Strike supporters add their bags theatrically to the monumental heaps of boxes and crates stacking up on the curb to keep the flame of rebellion alive; environmentalists keep their recycling at home and lament the overconsumption society we live in; landlord associations contract with private collectors to wash up their 20 feet of the street; the concierge in my building calls for the army to pick everything up; and almost everyone blames the notoriously detested mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, whether she tries to clean some parts of Paris or refuses to do so in support of the strikers.
Garbage collectors have become the personification of the lower-wage workers whose disproportionate occupational health risks are not taken into account by the pension reform. “One needs to realize that trash collectors’ life expectancy after they retire is three years lower than other public agents in territorial agencies,” Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, a Green Party municipal councilor in Paris who supports the strike, told me. She added that “the accumulation of trash has made visible the invisible: grueling, precarious jobs and work conditions are finally discussed.” Night shifts, repetitive stress injuries, heavy loads, exposure to toxic products, joint overuse, fatigue—trash collectors have explained on prime-time television, and materialized onto the streets, in unescapable, enormous dumps of waste, the laboriousness of their labor.
For Dominique Méda, a professor of sociology at the University of Paris-Dauphine, the steadfast mobilization against the reform originates in a “serious crisis of work” itself. “A significant segment of the workforce considers that their jobs are unbearable,” she told me. “In 2019, 37 percent of employed workers considered they would not be able to go on with the same job until retirement.” For these workers, the French word for work, travail, is getting dangerously close to its Latin root, tripalium, which means “torture.” Many fear they won’t be able to stand the travails of travail for two additional years at the end of their already strenuous career.
France’s retirement age may be lower than its European neighbors’, but its working conditions are also less enviable. With close to 800,000 occupational accidents in 2019 according to the Ministry of Labor, France beats every other European Union country in terms of workplace injuries relative to the number of employed workers. Its rate of fatal workplace incidents also sits firmly above the EU average. Slogans like “Métro, boulot, tombeau” (“commute, work, die”), “La retraite avant l’arthrite” (“retire before arthritis”), “La retraite avant le cercueil” (“pension before the pine box”) ot “pensions are better when still alive” have flourished on banners in recent marches.
But the breaking point that ignited resentment and shifted the mood from peaceful opposition to enraged distrust in recent days has been President Macron’s inflexibility, his perceived disregard for everyday citizens’ woes, and his decision to ram the pension bill past parliament without a vote.
Riots erupted immediately across France against this coup de force. Using garbage as ammunition against the police and building barricades with garbage bins, pallets, and crates, some protesters said that democracy itself had been trashed by Macron’s authoritarian use of his constitutional powers. The social crisis had morphed into a regime crisis.
“All the ingredients of a prerevolutionary situation are present,” Dominique Méda told me. “The people’s anger, a profound feeling of unfairness, massive demonstrations where all social classes participate, demands for a regime change.” The list of social woes she enumerated paints an incendiary situation—one that is already conjuring up comparisons with May 1968 and the Yellow Vests movement of 2018.
What started as a typical union-led power struggle against austerity measures has turned into an institutional crisis that threatens the very legitimacy of President Macron’s vertical style of government. “The entire political system loses its legitimacy each time neoliberal reforms are passed against the will of huge portions of the nation,” explained Fabien Escalona, a journalist and academic, and author of Une République à bout de souffle (A Worn-Out Republic). “The use of the 49.3 article has been a shock. Now protests are against this affront to democracy, and for more power to the people in the decision-making process.”
This “power to the people” aspiration could benefit the populist parties that have fanned the flame of anti-elite discontent, chief among them Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. According to a March 23 Ifop survey, Marine Le Pen’s party would gain five percentage points if legislative elections were held today, and become France’s leading force.
This past Tuesday, between 750,000 and 2 million French citizens across the country, including in small and middle-sized towns usually impermeable to social protests, gathered in the 10th round of a union-led series of demonstrations. Violence was mostly contained, thanks to the amped-up presence of anti-riot police, but new slogans (“Macron, take your pension, not ours,” “Macron to the pyre”) and actors (high schoolers and students, former Yellow Vests) entered the stage. The recognizable green trash bins of the city of Paris could be seen floating atop the crowd, carried along on people’s shoulders, Macron’s head in papier-mâché slightly emerging from the container.
At 4 pm, the trash collectors’ union declared that it was suspending its 22-day long strike to regroup and “come back stronger until our demands are met.” A few garbage trucks, requisitioned by the state, had already been trudging along cramped streets for a few days prior, picking up a tiny fraction of the mounds of trash bags, food scraps, cartons, jugs, boxes, and junk (and, by my count, at least one bathtub and several mattresses) that are littering the city.
Each morning since, a new segment of the streets is magically cleaned, in an illusionary return to normalcy. Trash may be being picked up again in the capital, but Macron would be wise to think twice before trying to sweep the people’s discontent under the rug. With rising distrust in representative democracy among French citizens, increased bitterness at the lack of consideration for first-line workers that held the nation together during the Covid-19 pandemic, and widespread disgust at Macron’s top-down style of government, many voters might be tempted to hold their nose at another covered container come the 2027 presidential election: the ballot box.
Correction: Due to a typo, this piece originally said that there were 10 tons of trash filling the streets of Paris. The correct figure is 10,000.