Marseille is certainly a beautiful place. It’s no wonder why so many people all around the world aim to retire in the south of France. The weather is tolerable, streets are filled with diverse vendors, architecture mixes modern with classic. A quick walk west from the train station Gare de St. Charles can put you at Vieux Port, with rows of boat docks and scenic patio cafes. Movies and romance novels have been made here, and it’s no surprise why.
The only problem: Marseille smells like a zoo.
The city’s waste management workers have been on strike, protesting against pension reform in France. Trash piled head high sits on every corner, pigeons pick at rotting fruit. The average French citizen is sick of the protests, as I can gather from speaking with people in the street. They are frustrated standing in train stations and subways, trying to figure out how to get to work on time.
Tourists sit at outdoor patios in Marseille, sipping espresso, and trying not to breathe too heavily because the smell is obnoxious.
And yet, why, do so many French jump on the band wagon and protest alongside the union workers all over France? In Paris, while covering some of the protests, I observed something strange: very few union workers. Half of the crowd seemed to be students, teenagers. Puffing on cigarettes, listening to music, chanting with the rest of the crowd. I don’t mean to take away the sincerity of younger protesters, I assume some of them understand their country’s economic situation, and still choose to fight for retirement at 60.
Last night legislation was passed in the French Senate raising retirement age to 62. This needed to happen. France is in desperate need of economic reform. The government is financing pensions with debt. Many countries face pension problems, including the United States.
In California, it costs the state nearly $180,000 a year to employ (if factoring in retirement) police and firefighters (The Economist, V397, 8704). The United States needs to embrace reform too. But France even more so.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde has said that her country needs to set a goal of lowering national debt from 8% to 6%, a big change. She has said that France cannot continue borrowing at the current rate.
The French people need to be educated on the accounting rules that got them into this mess, at the very least. They need to understand that garbage is the least of their worries, if these reforms can’t get through the National Assembly and Senate.
I’ve heard theories on why the French people are putting up such a fight: a long history of opposition to reform, laziness, apathy, anger with Sarkozy, sense of privilege. I’m not French, and I won’t pretend to know exactly why so much opposition exists, especially from younger crowds.
I do know that Marseille smells bad though, and that garbage on the street is symbolic of garbage in French economics. It smells bad, and French citizens need to step up, stop blaming Sarkozy, and move forward in fixing the problem.