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Social services at stake, not just pensions, strikers say ahead of ongoing protests

Emergency services on strike in Marseille, December 11 2019.
Emergency services on strike in Marseille, December 11 2019. Jean-Paul Pélissier, REUTERS

Ahead of another day of nationwide protests in France on Tuesday, the focus of the demonstrations has broadened. It is not simply about the highly divisive pension reform anymore, it is about social reform. Strikers are fighting against the ongoing deterioration of their working conditions.

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Tensions are running high as France hits the middle of its second week of protest against the government’s divisive pension reform package.

Another major day of protest by all the unions involved has been planned for Tuesday, December 17. Railway workers, students, public service employees, health professionals, lawyers, magistrates, and teachers are all expected to participate in demonstrations across France.

Strikers have warned that disruptions will continue at least until the start of next week and, in most worrying news, possibly for weeks to come. On Saturday, SNCF managing director Rachel Picard, told Le Parisien that she hoped that "half of the passengers" would have trains to visit family for Christmas". She did not elaborate what would options there might be for the other half.

Romain, 29, a nurse at the emergency room of the University Hospital of Saint-Étienne (Loire), will be out marching on the streets next Tuesday.

"I didn’t know much about this protest until the last few months, but the health system has really broken down this year," he told France 24, "We had a sudden deterioration in our working conditions on the one hand, and in the care for the patients on the other.”

“We have reached a new low with patients being forced to stay for hours or even days on stretchers. Some of them have died because of this, it's intolerable."

During the summer, Romain learnt of a patient at the hospital who spent five days on a stretcher without ever getting as far as a bed in a room before he went home.

"We are no longer able to give the care that we should. It is like being working on a factory line," says Romain. "The technical and human resources are insufficient to treat our patients with dignity."

On December 17, the protest by Romain and his colleagues will be on two levels. "We will do everything to defend the public hospital and its values, and we will also come together with our comrades who are in other professional corporations to share their demands for better work conditions. We believe that their demands are in line with what we are asking for. This is in everyone's interest."

'The French social system is being destroyed'

Jérémy, 34, a teacher in a college in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine (Seine-Saint-Denis), has been working for eleven years.  He has been on strike since December 5 against the pension reform, a "completely unfair" proposal, according to him. He will be part of the protest on December 17.

"This affects everyone, it is a real attack on social security," explains the teacher, who is also a union member at Sud Éducation 93.

"They are attacking pensions first because this represents such a substantial financial expense and they want to try to balance France’s budget," says Jérémy. "But it is not the government’s money, it is the workers' money and even those who are unemployed. People have paid out money their entire lives to have social rights."

In his college, 75 percent of the staff went on strike for the first multi-union demonstration on December 5 and up to 70 percent for the second protest on December 9, according to a trade union source.

"This is not just about pensions, there is also a real discontent in the national education system, whether it is teachers, cleaning staff, administrative staff or school nurses," says Jeremy.

He claims that conditions have been deteriorating since he started in the profession.

"My school has lost almost €100,000 in its budget in 11 years, which means fewer outings or school trips, and at the same time the number of students per class has increased," he explains.

Grievances in various professional sectors across France seem to be numerous and growing. And they will all be coming together for December 17.

"Speaking with colleagues who are firefighters, railway workers, teachers... we all agree on a central point, this is the destruction of the French social system," says Romain.

"On Tuesday, the demonstration will be to show solidarity between the different professions and to come together to defend our demands."

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