Enough applause: French health workers rally anew for substantive reform

After more than three months of a public health crisis, tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and healthcare aides hit the streets across France again on Tuesday to demand the government keep its promises for overhauling the hospital system in response to the coronavirus crisis. 

Healthcare workers protest in Paris on June 16, 2020.
Healthcare workers protest in Paris on June 16, 2020. © Charles Platiau, Reuters

Although French hospitals are considered to be among the world’s best, they struggled to handle a rush of Covid-19 patients after years of cost cuts. France has reported nearly 30,000 coronavirus-related deaths, the fifth-highest pandemic death toll worldwide, and the country's hospitals have treated more than 100,000 people with the virus.

As the Paris crowd reached the gold-domed Invalides monument, a few protesters threw paving stones. Police responded by firing tear gas and more than a dozen people were arrested. 

The hospital labour unions that led the protest later denounced the aggressive behaviour.

According to police, some 18,000 people demonstrated in Paris, many wearing white medical coats. Some 7,500 rallied in Toulouse and at least 4,000 demonstrated in Bordeaux. Peaceful protests were held in Marseille and other cities around France.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, the protest organisers criticised the government’s “austerity” policies that they say reduced medical resources to the bare bones. They are calling for increased wages and a freeze on hospital closures and service reductions. 

During the height of the crisis in France, people took to their windows every night at 8pm to applaud healthcare workers for several minutes. But some have said that while such appreciation is nice, substantive change is needed.

Their objective now is to parlay the public support on show during the novel coronavirus outbreak into tangible advances for hospital and nursing home employees  those lauded as "heroes in white coats" by President Emmanuel Macron at the start of the pandemic.

Healthcare workers are demanding a hiring scheme and a general salary review on the order of €300 to €400, according to unions. They are calling for "halting all facility, department and bed closures".

"After 14 months of mobilisation and a healthcare crisis, going back to 'abnormal' is unthinkable. For the system's users, it is no longer the time to applaud healthcare workers, but to support our demands," insists the Inter-Hospital Collective spearheading the year-old movement for better pay and working conditions. 

"The government's soothing speeches, chocolate medals and promises of random and hypothetical bonuses will not suffice. What is needed going forward are real human and budgetary resources for public health," the CGT union said in a communiqué.

>> The Debate: Doctor, is it serious? French healthcare pushed to the brink by Covid-19

'Concrete answers now'

Tuesday's protest is the climax of a series of demonstrations in favour of hospitals in recent weeks, including rallies known as the "Tuesdays of anger". The protests coincide with the "Ségur de la santé" (health safety) consultations that Prime Minister Édouard Philippe launched on May 25.

Those reform talks are supposed to result in concrete proposals by early July. But no figures, including specifics on any salary increases, have been laid on the table so far.

The process has been frustrating for unions, they say. "Union organisations cannot work amid constant improvisation and without allocated means," lamented a number of medical groups, including France's Federation of Doctors, decrying a "sham".

"The methodology of the Ségur de la santé poses problems," said the Inter-Hospital Collective, expressing regret over a "lack of transparency". The collective insists that "concrete answers need to be brought now".

"We're working, we're moving forward," Health Minister Olivier Véran told the LCI news channel on Monday, noting that "more than 100 talks have taken place nationally" since the consultations began.

Over the weekend, the government issued decrees enacting the exceptional bonuses it had promised of €1,000 to €1,500 for nursing home employees and a 50 percent increase in pay for hospital overtime hours, slated to be paid out before September. 

As for the salary increases pledged within the framework of the Ségur talks, Véran said their time will come. "Between now and early July, healthcare workers will have all of the answers to the questions they are asking and the demands they are legitimately making," Véran said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app