Mar 23rd, 2023, 01:10 PM

A Heap of Trouble: The Failed Paris Trash Protest

By Samuel Coyle
A particularly large pile of trash in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Image credit: Sam Coyle
The trash collector's strike wasn't enough to prevent retirement reform.

The iconic scent of cigarettes and expensive perfume that typically pervades the atmosphere of Paris has been overwhelmed by the putrid odor of garbage. The colossal mountains of trash that have been amassing for the last two weeks have become a physical burden, turning narrow sidewalks into obstacle courses of bulging garbage bags, soggy cardboard and oozing fluids of unknown origin. In some places the debris has amassed to mountain-like proportions, blocking storefronts, doorways and parking areas. 

Unlike transit protests which can be avoided by those fortunate or creative enough to find other options, the rancid stench has assailed young and old, rich and poor alike. But this was exactly the goal of the trash collectors who went on strike in opposition to a proposed increase in retirement age: cause as much disruption as possible. It’s safe to say they’ve done so, as they’ve produced a profound display that's been impossible to ignore even by the most sheltered elites.  

Overflowing bins of trash spill onto the sidewalks on this street in the 12th arrondissement. Image credit: Sarah Cronin

Despite the disagreeable nature of the trash accumulation, many French people have expressed solidarity with the garbage collectors as Macron’s retirement reforms are purported to affect the vast majority of workers. But this sympathetic view has not been shared by sanitation officials, who have raised the concern that the trash build-up could lead to a public health catastrophe.

On March 21, the Police Prefecture announced that striking trash collectors would be forced back to work, citing the precedence of public health. The announcement came only a few days after Emmanuel Macron used article 49.3 to force through his unpopular retirement reforms once and for all in the absence of a democratic vote. 


So after months of increasing intense opposition from the public, the government has gone back on the offensive and shown determination to go against the will of the people in spite of overwhelming opposition. French protest movements have won many great victories in the past, so there was good reason to believe that along with other movements, the garbage collector’s strike could be enough to inspire the government to change course on retirement reform. But this time it wasn’t to be.

With all hope gone and only the foul smell of garbage remaining, it's unclear where to go from here. The pleasant fragrances which usually herald the coming of spring have been canceled out, as if the protesters could somehow intervene in the course of fate. Even after the physical wreckage is cleared away, the political mess that the garbage filled streets came to represent won’t be going away any time soon.