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In Paris, the face of the city's garbage collectors changed over the years, along with technological advances and economic uncertainties. While cleaning the streets was once the domain of male immigrant workers, the job is now being reclaimed by Frenchmen of both sexes. So the next time you're in Paris, look closely at the green uniformed man sweeping the street. He may actually be a women. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report from Paris.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Twenty-eight-year-old Anne Schezevick(ph) used to work from nine to five as a medical secretary. Now she is an (French word) or garbage collector, with the city of Paris. Her day begins at 6:00 a.m. with a broom in hand on the streets of the 15th arrondissement.
After opening a curbside spigot linked the city's non-potable water street-cleaning system, Schezevick methodically sweeps the trash, cigarette butts and dog poo - known in garbage parlance as canine ejection - into the stream that flows toward the gutters.
Ms. ANNE SCHEZEVICK (Garbage Collector): (Through translator) People are always surprised to see a woman trash collector. Many times they say to me, what are you doing here? This isn't a job for you. But I like it. I don't regret leaving my other position. I earn a better living. I have job security. And at 2:00 o'clock I'm finished and have time to be with my baby.
BEARDSLEY: The mechanization of garbage collecting with the introduction of automated trucks and sophisticated cleaning machinery has opened up the occupation to women for the first time since the Second World War. The only tool that has hardly changed in centuries is the Paris street cleaner's birch twig broom.
While actually birch branches were used up until 1975, today Schezevick sweeps with a plastic model that looks just like the birch twig original. Ivan Guillar(ph) manages three garbage collection centers in the neighborhood. He said the make-up of the crews began to change after large-scale unemployment in the 1980s.
Mr. IVAN GUILLAR (Garbage Collection Center Manager): (Through translator) We used to have a hard time getting French people to do this job so we recruited from Francophone African countries like Mali and Senegal. But today the profile is French. Either young people who want job stability or people in their 40s who want to completely change careers and restart their lives.
BEARDSLEY: Immigrant trash collectors are not being forced out of their jobs they have now, but more and more French people are taking these jobs as they open up. At the garbage school in the north of Paris, a portrait of 19th century city governor Eugene Poubelle hangs near the entrance. Poubelle is now the French word for trashcan because he was the first to encourage the city's denizens to throw their waste into receptacles instead of into the street.
All new recruits receive three weeks of lively classroom instruction here, but with nearly 4,000 candidates for just 300 slots, applicants now have to pass an oral and written exam, which includes an essay. Daniel Proxcel(ph) is head of the school.
Mr. DANIEL PROXCEL: (Through translator) Of course we're not going to take the guy who's looking for the perks of a civil service job. We're looking for people who want to work, who are organized and attracted by cleanliness and who love to be outside.
BEARDSLEY: Garbage collectors show up with an arsenal of Dr. Seuss-like cleaning machines - pooper-scoopers, sidewalk scrubbers and leaf suckers - to clean up after a street market near the Eiffel Tower. The city spends about $500 million a year and employs 7,000 workers to keep Paris's densely populated streets tidy.
Trashman Alain Bozon(ph) says he's worked in just about every position in his 23 years of service with the city's garbage collection department. Today he earns $30,000 a year as a truck driver picking up household appliances left on the street. Bozon says his job is looking better than ever these days, and not just because he works only 35 hours a week and has eight weeks of vacation.
Mr. ALAN BOZON (Driver): (Through translator) I have friends who work in factories in the private sector who earn less than I do, and they can lose their jobs from outsourcing. At least I know I'll never be fired. And it's actually interesting to clean the streets of Paris. I can't complain.
BEARDSLEY: Garbage collecting may be an increasingly popular job, but city officials say they are trying to reduce costs by encouraging Parisians to pick up after themselves. Public information campaigns are starting to make a dent, they say, but especially effective is the $200 fine for dog owners caught leaving canine ejection on the sidewalk.
For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
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