If you haven’t seen footage of French health workers berating Emmanuel Macron over the conditions and low pay they’ve had to endure during the Covid-19 pandemic, that’s because there isn’t any.
Perhaps in anticipation of what the French president would be subjected to, the Élysée didn’t allow any press to cover Macron’s visit to the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris on Friday, May 16th.
“We are desperate”, “we no longer believe in you” and “we are the shame of Europe” were just some of the remarks hurled at the 42-year-old head of state, who did somewhat begrudgingly acknowledge mistakes in reforming France’s national hospital system, historically regarded as one of the world’s best.
France’s public health system has indeed faced years of cuts, which have served to leave hospitals in the world’s 21st wealthiest country in terms of GDP per capita (€36,585 according to 2019 IMF figures) short of staff and equipment during the Covid-19 crisis.
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And when it comes to financial remuneration for these perpetually “essential workers” – pandemic or no pandemic – the situation isn’t much better.
According to OECD data from 2017, French nurses are in the bottom half of the table when it comes to comparing their wages to the average salary in each country in question.
While in Spain nurses earn 29 percent more on average, in Greece an extra 18 percent and in Germany 13 percent more, in France nurses get paid 6 percent less.
— Le Parisien Infog (@LeParisienInfog) May 18, 2020
There are other wealthy nations such as Finland (-9 percent) and Switzerland (-14 percent) where nurses are paid worse still on average, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that France came in a lowly 28th position out of 32 countries surveyed.
In reaction to Friday’s Macron vs health workers feud, French Health Minister Olivier Véran told weekly newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that “the nation will have to make a significant effort to recognise their role” and that their wages will “quickly” reach a “level of remuneration corresponding at least with the European average”.
A 2019 study published by Appel Médical, a subsidiary of temporary employment agency Randstad, showcases how the French government’s MO of only reacting when put under the pressure is nothing new.
Their research found that recruiters in France’s public health sector had been forced to increase salaries for nurses and other caregivers due to an alarming lack of staff, as many were choosing to work instead in the better paying private sector.
According to a survey conducted by French nursing website infirmiers.com, French nurses earned on average €1,820 net per month in 2017.
Earlier reports from 2012 put the average wages for nurses at €2,225 net a month, which suggests there has been gradual salary drop for this group over the past few years.
Factors such as experience, specialisation and fluctuations in France's Gross Salary Index for public workers make it hard to ascertain just how pronounced this drop in wages has been.
But the general consensus appears to be that nurses in the public sector in particular earn less than their counterparts in the private sector, on average half of what state pharmacists and doctors get.
France’s government has already promised nurses and other hospital staff a bonus ranging from €500 to €1,500 for their efforts during the epidemic together with the promise of a salary revaluation.
“The president has been very clear: we will increase salaries, we’re working on an ambitious investment plan to instigate a profound transformation of everything that isn’t working in our hospitals,” Minister of Health Olivier Véran assured on Sunday.
For French nurses, it will prove a bitter pill to swallow if the government doesn’t stick to its word once the panic of the pandemic fades away.