The stage is set for the launch of the beginning of what French media has described as “perhaps the most important moment” of Macron's presidency.
This is the opening of a seven-week long consultation with healthcare professionals, which will form the backbone of a major overhaul of France's hospital and community health system.
“We will act fast, we will act strongly,” health minister Olivier Véran said as he announced that the government would enter this process in an attempt to meet hospital staff who have long been protesting about low pay and poor working conditions, problems exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.
Among the most pressing topics to be discussed during the Ségur de la santé – the name of the process has been taken from the avenue de Ségur, the street in Paris where the health ministry is located – are salaries, working conditions and general organisation of healthcare services in cities and rural areas.
For the first time since Macron entered the Elysée Palace all of these topics will be on the table, after the president himself admitted that the government made a “strategic error” when pushing forward the 2018 health plan, which aimed to continue a longstanding process of rendering hospitals more efficient.
“We will shake up corporatism, habits, inertia. We will be transgressive if necessary,” said former neurologist Véran, promising that “nothing will be the same.”
The government's plan to redefine the health system contains four pillars;
- Reevaluating salaries
- Defining an investment plan to reform the way hospitals are currently financed
- Rendering the system more flexible and simple
- Rethinking the organisation between city and rural area and doctors and hospitals
The results of the Ségur de la santé will be part of a new social security law that will be presented to the parliament this autumn.
French Health Minister Olivier Véran has promised a shake-up of the current health system. Photo: AFP
Although the French hospital system is regarded as one of the most generous and best in the world for patients, nurses in France are currently among the worst paid in Europe and they have been protesting about their low wages for years.
The government’s coronavirus bonus (€500 for most staff, €1,000 for some), fell victim to harsh criticism by most of the country’s hospital sector and hospitals are now asking for €300 more per nurse a month – 200,000 nurses in total – along with an 20-30 percent salary increase for doctors.
Union representatives have said they remain convinced that the government will meet their demands of a general salary increase, and government officials themselves have over the past week on several occasions indicated to French media that such a raise is indeed on the books.
Changing the rules on the number of hours nurses and other hospital staff work will be a main point of disagreement between unions and the government in the coming weeks.
In an interview with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, Véran said he wanted to “render more flexible” the rules regulating working-hours, to make it easier “for those who wish to” to work longer.
Some argue that French nurses earn less because their 35-hour week is shorter than those of for example their German colleagues.
Unions slam this as inaccurate, and say that French nurses are obliged to take extra shifts to top up their too-low salaries, and that increasing their hours would only worsen the existing situation.
“We need to create more jobs in order for everyone to be able to take the days off that they have the right to take, as they, right now, often can't,” said Thierry Amouroux, union spokesperson for SNPI, to Les Obs.
They are asking for 20,000 new hospital posts.
Could the coronavirus crisis be the turning point nurses have waited years to achieve? Photo: AFP
Reorganising the system
Hospital workers in France have been organising street protests for months to get the government's attention.
In the winter of 2019, barely three months before the coronavirus stretched many hospitals virtually to breaking point, nearly half of France’s public hospital services were on strike (a largely symbolic label as actual walk-outs in the public hospital sector are forbidden by the law).
In January, over 1,200 health officials resigned from their administrative duties in protest.