'Save public hospitals', French health workers urge Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron. (Ludovic Marin, Pool, AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron. (Ludovic Marin, Pool, AFP)

French hospital workers went on strike on Thursday over years of cutbacks they say have harmed care in a country with a health system once the envy of the world.

Public hospitals in France have been forced to shav $9.9 billion off their spending since 2005, leading to the scrapping of hundreds of beds and dozens of operating theatres while stagnant salaries fuelled a flight to the private sector.

Calling on President Emmanuel Macron to "save public hospitals", hundreds of doctors, nurses, students and administrative staff from some of the country's biggest hospitals held protests in Paris and a dozen other cities.

They held aloft placards with messages such as: "Exhausted caregivers = endangered patients", "Public hospitals in life-threatening emergency" and "The hospital is suffocating, let's save it."

In 2000, the World Health Organisation ranked France's health system the best of 191 countries.

But a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, published in The Lancet medical journal in 2017, placed it in 15th place for quality of care.

Protests began in March when emergency room staff, who complain of elderly patients being left for hours on trolleys in corridors while waiting for a bed, began strike action.

Over 260 emergency rooms nationwide are affected by the labour action.

On Thursday, staff from other hospital departments joined the protest to demand a cash injection from the state.

Monique Aubin, a 61-year-old nurse who demonstrated in the southern city of Marseille, complained of a "lack of materials, even medication" and of being swamped in paperwork which left her little time to care for patients.

Jean-Michel Carayol, a hospital technician who also took part in the 100-strong protest in Marseille, said staff were "at the end of their tether and exhausted."

New winter of discontent? 

The protests have created jitters in the government, which fears that hospital staff could band together with other disgruntled groups such as transport workers planning mass strike action in December over pension reforms.

In an attempt to head off another winter of discontent, a year after the start of the "yellow vest" revolt, Macron has pledged to invest more in healthcare to ease "the suffering of health workers".

Three health plans in the past two years have, however, failed to hit the mark.

The protesters are demanding 3.8 billion euros in emergency investment in public hospitals - twice as much as set aside in the draft 2020 budget currently before parliament.

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