MARSEILLE, France — Imagine the result if Fenway Park went uncleaned for 15 Red Sox home games in a row. This might give you a faint idea of what Marseille, France’s second largest city and most important sea port, looked like this week, 15 days into a garbage workers strike.
The Mediterranean sun cooked the rotting piles of garbage heaped on the narrow downtown streets and the sea breeze swirled debris into the air until it looked and smelled like what they were turning into: a trash dump.
When the French are unhappy, it stinks.
For the past month, life in Europe’s second largest country has been interrupted by countless strikes and protests, as the French vocalize their opposition to the government’s proposed retirement reform, which was passed on Wednesday by the National Assembly and now awaits the imminent signature of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The reform raises the age to collect a minimum pension from 60 to 62, and for a full pension from 65 to 67.
During the 15 days of strikes in Marseille, approximately 9,000 tons of garbage amassed in nearly half of the city’s 16 neighborhoods.
During the strike people threw out furniture, food and other materials not regularly collected by garbage services, onto the curbside heaps.
Firefighters put out over 800 trash fires, including 160 in one day, and when debris reached an extreme, the French army intervened to remove 100 tons of rubbish.
Downtown stores and restaurants were forced to close during the fifteen days, which included one week of school vacation, due to garbage blocking their entrances.
Officials now estimate it will cost at least 500,000 euros to clean up the mess.
As another anti-retirement reform effort, French oil tankers blocked Marseille’s harbor for 31 days, cutting off the petrol supply to much of the country.
And in the end, the reform passed.
From our side of the ocean, these protests often seem futile, yet the French hold the tradition of the grève close to their bleu-blanc-et-rouge hearts, and year after year, they vacate their workplaces to pour into the streets, protesting against whatever new trick their government tries to pull.
This is especially true in Marseille, a city known to be clenched tightly in the grasp of workers unions.
But are the French really so quixotic to overlook the fact that these protest often seem fruitless? And can they overlook a rotting city in the hopes of changing a political system that is as unwavering as it is unpopular?
Conversations with locals last week on the odorous streets of Marseille suggest that while they take pride in their liberties, the French can only stand so much uncleanliness.
Ridvan Erkaya, 21, the manager of Cappadocia, a restaurant on the Canbière, the main street of old Marseille, said while he understands the reasoning behind the strike, it made business difficult.
“On the one hand they are right, but on the other, that forms bad habits,” Erkaya said.
He said he spent the past three weeks sweeping his patio each morning, only to find it covered in trash that evening.
“I have lived in Marseille for 11 years and this is the first time I’ve seen this,” said Erkaya, who is originally from Turkey.
What starts out as a little mess for a good cause quickly turns into a larger problem, he said.
“If the army collects the garbage, who is going to fight the wars?” Erkaya asked.
But, he said, “it’s a little complicated in Marseille. There is a little bit of everything.”
Depending on who you ask, Marseille is a charming port city or a dangerous town of crime and disorder.
In addition to business owners, residents of Marseille’s historic neighborhoods worried about sanitation risks.
Solange Houache who lives in the seaside arrondissement known for its stunning views of the port and rocky shoreline, expressed such inquietudes.
Houache said she did not sleep at all one rainy night because she feared trash would wash into her home or make the water undrinkable.
“The politicians should take actions to help the city before they worry about the retirement,” Houache said. “This could turn into a catastrophe.”