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EXPLAINED: Why French hospital emergency rooms are in crisis

Hospital emergency room staff have been on strike in France for three months, and despite the recent efforts of the French health minister, they are set to continue. So, why exactly are they so angry?

EXPLAINED: Why French hospital emergency rooms are in crisis
Hospital emergency workers began the strike back in mid-March. Photo: AFP

French hospital emergency room staff across France, including in Paris, have been on strike for three months with the support of the main unions, such as the hard left CGT, Sud and Force Ouvriere.  

This is despite the efforts of French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn who this week announced emergency measures in a bid to stop the strikes. 

So, why are they protesting?

French hospital emergency staff are demanding more staff and more resources, such as beds, as well as a re-evaluation of their salaries and a €300 monthly bonus in recognition of the tough conditions they face at work. 
 
They say their working conditions are putting them under severe strain and putting patients in danger. 
 
The strikes began three months ago, in mid-March, at Saint Antoine Hospital after a series of attacks against staff, and they have since spread to 80 emergency services.
 
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File photo: AFP
 
What have the strikes involved?
 
Paramedics, doctors, nurses and reception staff have all been taking part in the strike.
 
Up until now services have not really been affected but in recent days the strikes have ramped up, with some emergency workers at Saint Antoine Hospital in the 12th arrondissement of Paris not showing up when they were scheduled to work on Saturday, claiming sick leave.  
 
According to a report presented by the Assistance Publique – Hopitaux de Paris ( AP HP), 13 nurses and other emergency staff, out of 19, took sick leave before they were due to start at 9pm.
 
“Part of the afternoon team, on a voluntary basis, mobilized to ensure continuity of care. Locum and interim staff were also called in,” said the AP HP.
 
The same tactic had been used at Lariboisière Hospital in the 10th arrondissement of the French capital the previous week. 
 
However this is risky behaviour as hospital staff are legally very limited when it comes to striking and if they call in sick too much, the police may be brought in to deal with the situation.      
 
“The police came to the door of a nurse at 1am!” Eric Loupiac, an emergency doctor in the eastern department of Jura and delegate for the AMUF (Association of emergency doctors in France), told the French press. “She had already worked 72 hours that week.” 
 
The harsh punishments they face means that in practice most hospital staff demonstrate in front of emergency services departments when they are not working, or they wear a badge indicating they are on strike on their uniforms. 
 
On May 8th, the unions representing emergency services called for a joint, symbolic five minute walkout. 
 
File photo: AFP
 
What does the government say?
 
French Health Minister Agnes Buzyn has said that she “understands the impatience of emergency workers” as a result of the “unbearable everyday existence” they face but that she cannot condone taking “fake sick leave”.
 
At the conference of emergency doctors on Thursday, Buzyn announced five immediate measures to tackle the situation, including accelerating the renovation of dilapidated emergency services buildings, the creation of a bonus for paramedics who carry out duties normally carried out by a doctor, and the extension of another bonus which already exists for paramedics to cover more staff. 
 
The health minister has also asked MP Thomas Mesnier, who was previously an emergency doctor, and President of the National Union of Emergency Services, Professor Carli to come up with a plan to restructure the country's emergency services, with their proposals expected by November. 
 
These measures are in addition to the longer-term provisions included in the health law, which is currently being examined in parliament.
 
But Buzyn's attempt to appease the situation were not greeted with open arms by everyone.
 
“I am very disappointed,” said Patrick Pelloux, from AMUF, adding “the government has not taken stock of the extent of the challenge”.
 
For France, which already spends €200 billion on healthcare, it is not simply a matter of spending more money.
 
What next?
 
The main unions are calling for a day of increased mobilisation in hospitals and a national strike on Tuesday, which will see more demonstrations outside emergency services across France. 

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STRIKES

French customs officers strike over job cuts

Customs officers across France will walk out on Thursday in protest at job cuts that unions say will “weaken the customs network”.

French customs officers strike over job cuts

The national strike on Thursday, March 10th is expected to lead to delays at ports, airports and on the Eurostar.

The strike, which will include a rally outside the National Assembly building in Paris, was called by the CFDT-Douane and has the support of other unions. 

A work-to-rule protest over pay and conditions by customs officers in 2019, under the shadow of Brexit, led to delays and disruption at airports, as well as ports including Calais and Dunkirk, and on Eurostar trains.

Unions are calling on the government to axe plans to switch responsibility for import duty collection to the Direction Générale des Finances Publiques by 2024, at the cost of 700 customs’ officer jobs – and, according to strikers, tens of billions of euros to State coffers.

“We are asking for the reforms to be stopped, mainly that of the transfer of taxation, which is disorganising the network with the elimination of nearly a thousand jobs,” CFDT-Douane’s secretary general David-Olivier Caron said.

The planned job cuts come after years of restructuring and streamlining that has seen thousands of positions disappear, the unions say, when customs fraud and smuggling is rising because of a lack of resources.

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