By Alice HACKMAN and Anne-Sophie LABADIE
Portuguese tourist Fabio Figueirado wanted to admire beautiful buildings on a romantic getaway in Paris, but instead he and his girlfriend have found themselves navigating pavements piled high with garbage.
“I’ve never seen a city with so much trash on the street,” said the 25-year-old, near a mound of bulging bin bags across the road from the city’s main opera house.
“They must collect it once a week or something, it’s not very nice at all.”
Tourists flock to Paris for fairy-tale walks and iconic monuments, but piles of uncollected trash because of strikes against a pension reform are spoiling the experience for many foreign visitors.
The French capital’s municipal garbage collectors have been on strike since last week as part of nationwide action against the deeply unpopular bill to hike the retirement age and increase contributions for a full pension.
The walkout has left 6,600 tonnes of rubbish piled up on sidewalks in around half of the capital, according to city authorities.
Sitting near the Notre-Dame cathedral, Martha Velasquez, 52, was tucking into an ice-cream with her family not far from another stream of black bags.
“I think it’s really sad to see so much trash here in this beautiful city,” said the visitor from Colombia.
“It’s been several streets that we see piles of trash.”
– ‘I’ll be poor’ –
The capital’s municipal garbage collectors and cleaners on Tuesday voted to extend their walkout until at least next Monday, a union representative told AFP.
Garbage collectors and truck drivers are opposed to their retirement age being pushed back from 57 to 59 if the new law is passed, the CGT union says.
They also want a wage increase so that they receive a slightly higher pension.
Murielle Gaeremynck, 56, is among those striking.
She said she had been working for more than two decades as a city garbage worker.
But when I retire, “I know I’ll be poor,” she said, explaining her pension would be less than 1,200 euros (around $1,200) a month.
Nabil Latreche, 44, said he and other municipal collectors had a gruelling job and deserved a decent retirement.
“We work whether there’s rain, snow or wind,” he said.
“When we’re riding behind the truck, we breathe in all sorts of fumes. We often get sick from work.”
– Sign of a ‘free country’ –
In parts of Paris where pickups have been interrupted, some tourists in recent days have complained of the smell.
But others have been much more understanding.
In a narrow back alley of restaurants near the River Seine, Andrey Naradzetski, 21, posed for a picture in front of a giant heap of rubbish.
But he saw the detritus as a healthy sign of democracy.
“It feels like it’s a really liberated, free country because here there are strikes,” said the young Belarusian who lives in Poland.
I don’t “believe the same situation can happen in my home country.”
Not far off, near more overflowing dustbins, US tourist Daniel Gore, 53, said he too respected those striking.
“Paris is usually amazingly clean,” he said, on his 13th visit to the city with his wife and daughter.
“This time we obviously noticed a difference — that there’s trash piled up — but we also know why and we understand.”
Jean-François Rial, president of the Paris tourism office, admitted all the rubbish was “not optimal for foreign visitors”.
But the ongoing strikes will have “no impact” on tourism numbers in Paris, he told AFP.