OPINION: The renowned French health service is disappearing before our eyes

The French health service is in crisis and its reputation is at risk along with the lives of patients and the mental and physical health of beleaguered staff. That's the message from a Paris nurse and spokeswoman for the protest movement that launched nationwide strike action on Thursday.

OPINION: The renowned French health service is disappearing before our eyes
"Critical condition, save our hospitals", reads the message on a protesting French health worker.

Anne-Claire Rafflegeau, a nurse who works in emergency wards in Paris hospitals, is spokeswoman for the protest movement Inter-Urgences.

Her organisation, which unites medics and administrative staff from emergency wards around the country, is leading Thursday's “historic” nationwide strike to protest the ever-worsening conditions for staff and patients in France's hospitals.

Here she tells The Local why the renowned French health system is under threat.

The financial squeeze

“Budgetary restrictions over many years have reduced our capacity to properly treat and care for patients. 

“The government is asking hospitals to make extra savings of between €800 million and a €1 billion even though the system is in crisis.

“They want to make savings but we can't cut any more. We can't do more without putting the lives of patients in danger and undermining the quality of the whole health service.

Quality healthcare in France is a right

“In France access to quality healthcare is a fundamental right. We have one of the best health systems in the world but it's disappearing before our eyes.

“We are fighting to maintain it and to maintain the right of French people to get access to healthcare.

READ MORE: What's gone so wrong at hospitals in France?

More elderly and poor people

The nurse says the number of older people and the number of people living in poverty is increasing and putting more pressure on besieged hospitals.

Because there are not enough care options on offer in communities the poor and elderly turn to hospitals for treatment, she says.

Closures of health centres and the lack of doctors in rural areas, a phenomenon known as a “medical desert”, means patients in need of care are left with no other option but to head to the local hospital.

“French governments have not taken into account the ageing population and those who are in poverty. They have been pushed to one side,” she says.

Staffing problems

Rafflegeau says the huge turnover of staff is a newer phenomenon which has left hospitals struggling to fill posts and those that are working struggling to cope with the ever greater workloads. The turnover, caused by worsening working conditions which have not been reflected in higher salaries, is having a huge detrimental impact on medical staff.

“These are jobs that bring huge responsibility with them. Workers have been through long periods of study, they work unsocial hours, long nights, weekends, but that is not reflected in their salaries,” she says.

“Their workload has risen enormously which means there is a huge pressure on their mental and physical health.

Patients losing out

“The constant cuts have made access to health services more difficult.

“Beds and health units have been closed and patients are getting stuck for hours in emergency wards which puts an added strain on staff.

“Because waiting times for treatment in hospitals have risen considerably that puts a pressure on patients who can become aggressive,” says Rafflegeau.

“The lack of means is putting the lives of patients in danger.”

READ MORE: Medical deserts – Why one in three French towns don't have enough doctors

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France brings in free contraception for all women aged 18-25

Free birth control for all women under 25 will be available in France from Saturday, expanding a scheme targeting under-18s to ensure young women don't stop taking contraception because they cannot afford it.

France brings in free contraception for all women aged 18-25
A doctor holds an interuterine contraceptive device (IUD) before inserting it in a patient. Photo: Adek Berry/AFP

The scheme, which could benefit three million women, covers the pill, IUDs, contraceptive patches and other methods composed of steroid hormones. Contraception for minors was already free in France.

Several European countries, including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, make contraception free for teens. Britain makes several forms of contraception free to all.

France announced the extension to women under 25 in September, saying surveys showed a decline in the use of contraception mainly for financial reasons.

The move is part of a series of measures taken by President Emmanuel Macron’s government to boost women’s rights and alleviate youth poverty. The free provision is supported by women’s groups including the association En Avant Tous.

“Between 18 and 25-years-old, women are very vulnerable because they lose a lot of rights compared to when they were minors and are very precarious economically,” spokeswoman Louise Delavier told AFP.

Leslie Fonquerne, an expert in gender issues, said there was more to be done.

“This measure in no way resolves the imbalance in the contraceptive burden between women and men,” the sociologist said.

In some developed countries, the free contraception won by women after decades of campaigning is coming under attack again from the religious right.

In the United States, former president Barack Obama’s signature health reform, known as Obamacare, gave most people with health insurance free access to birth control.

But his successor Donald Trump scrapped the measure, allowing employers to opt out of providing contraception coverage on religious grounds — a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020.

Poland’s conservative government has also heavily restricted access to emergency contraception as part of its war on birth control.