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French health workers hailed, but enraged, on Bastille Day unlike any other

A health worker calling for "maille" (money), not medals, at a protest in Paris on July 14, 2020.
A health worker calling for "maille" (money), not medals, at a protest in Paris on July 14, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters

France’s unconventional Bastille Day festivities served up two tales of a crisis: at one end, a celebration of the workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic, and at the other, an excoriation of the policies that left the country’s cherished health care system unprepared for its onslaught.

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As French President Emmanuel Macron rode into Place de la Concorde on Tuesday, on board an open-top military jeep to the tune of the Marseillaise, a bizarre incident breached the rigid protocol of this year’s pared-down Bastille Day celebrations, dedicated to the workers on the front line of the Covid-19 battle.

Preceding the traditional tricoloured flyover by the Patrouille de France, a large banner carried by a cluster of helium balloons came wafting over the proceedings, eluding the police barriers that cordoned off the area. It read: “Behind the tributes, Macron is suffocating French hospitals.”

The stunt organised by two members of a health workers’ union, who were briefly detained, illustrates the widely differing narratives of the coronavirus crisis put forward by the government and the doctors, nurses and caregivers who experienced it first-hand. It highlighted deep divisions in a country Macron later described as gripped by fear, negativity and a “crisis of confidence”.

In a televised interview that followed the ceremony, Macron sought to nuance his previous claims of “victory” against the virus. He acknowledged shortcomings in the country’s initial response to the pandemic, though adding: “We were far from being the worst.”

Even as he spoke from his presidential palace, protesters across town marched on place de la Bastille, where the French Revolution was born on July 14, 1789, to decry years of cost cuts that left public hospitals ill-prepared when the virus raced across France.

‘Treating gangrene with a plaster’

The Bastille Day events followed weeks of protests by health workers, angered by policies that have weakened a public health system once touted as the envy of the world. Thousands have rallied in cities across France, determined to turn the broad public sympathy enjoyed during the pandemic into tangible advances for hospital and nursing home employees – those Macron has lauded as "heroes in white coats".

With more than 30,000 fatalities attributed to Covid-19, France has one of the world’s highest confirmed death tolls. Despite government claims that hospitals “coped” with the pandemic, there has been ample evidence of emergency rooms turning away elderly patients due to a desperate shortage of beds.

As in other hard-hit Western countries, the failure to provide France’s Covid-19 heroes with adequate protection has been a recurrent theme at protests. The French public has been shocked to hear of medics having to beg dental surgeries, chemical labs and cosmetics factories to donate blouses, gloves and other equipment, or use bin bags for want of other options. Many were also surprised to discover that the salaries of French health workers rank among the lowest in the Western world – a factor that has been blamed for a hemorrhage of staff heading abroad or into the private sector. 

In a move timed to precede the Bastille Day homage, Macron’s government announced on Monday it had reached an agreement with unions to give over €8 billion euros in pay rises for health workers, resulting in an average monthly raise of €183 for nurses and care workers – a gesture France’s newly appointment Prime Minister Jean Castex admitted was overdue in view of the coronavirus pandemic.

"No one can deny that this is a historic moment for our health system," Castex said after a signing ceremony that followed seven weeks of negotiations between government and unions.

However, some unions, including the hardline CGT, refrained from signing the accords, amid widespread dissatisfaction with measures that fell well short of their demands regarding wages, hirings and bed numbers. Speaking to FRANCE 24 ahead of the signing, Thierry Amouroux, a spokesperson for the SNPI union, likened the measures to “treating gangrene with a plaster”.

‘Bullshit’ parade

The mixed response was on full display on Tuesday as medics in white coats replaced uniformed soldiers as stars of the Bastille Day ceremony, while others rallied in protest.

With tears in their eyes or smiles on their faces, nurses and doctors stood silently as lengthy applause in their honour rang out over the place de la Concorde. The usual grandiose military parade was recalibrated to honour medics, along with supermarket cashiers, postal workers and other heroes of the pandemic. Families of medical workers who died also had a place in the stands.

Mirage and Rafale fighter jets painted the sky with blue-white-and-red smoke, and were joined by helicopters that had transported Covid-19 patients in distress.

In eastern Paris, meanwhile, riot police sprayed tear gas and unruly demonstrators hurled smoke bombs as the largely peaceful demonstrators marched onto Bastille.

“We are enormously short of personnel,” said protester Sylvie Pecard, a nurse at the Saint-Louis Hospital in Paris who described colleagues falling ill with the virus as Covid-19 patients filled its wards. “It's because we haven't recruited nurses,” Pecard told the Associated Press. “I came here 20 years ago and there were no empty positions. Now all the services are short of personnel, and it's worse and worse.”

Demonstrators sang in support of medical workers, while the Bastille Opera house displayed a huge message of thanks surrounded by portraits of nurses and doctors by street artist JR. Other protesters chanted slogans against police violence, spoke out against racial injustice, or against Macron policies seen as favouring the wealthy, or his decision to appoint a man accused of rape to oversee French police forces. 

“The government did not live up to our demands,” Paule Bensaid, a nurse from the northern city of Lille, told AFP. “Where I work, we were left without masks for weeks. So to have us parade on the Champs-Elysees now, I think that’s bullshit.”

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