French emergency rooms 'at a breaking point', say striking medical staff

An ER staffer in front of the gates of a Paris public hospital, wearing a message that says "on strike"
An ER staffer in front of the gates of a Paris public hospital, wearing a message that says "on strike" Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Emergency room staff at dozens of French public hospitals staged short walkout strikes Tuesday and Wednesday to protest against work conditions that they say is putting patients’ lives at risk. About 60 hospital services are involved in a protest movement that started mid-March after an attack on emergency staff at a Paris hospital.


Emergency care in France is at an "unprecedented breaking point", said Francois Braum, president of the Samu-Urgences ambulance workers’ union, who put out a call last week for short work stoppages.

Emergency room staff cannot legally stop work, so they have been taking 5 minute breaks at noon, and they continue to treat patients while posting protest signs in emergency rooms and wearing slogans on their uniforms.

Striking personnel say they face low pay and untenable work in emergency rooms that are over capacity. According to a 2017 Senate report, emergency room visits have doubled over the last 20 years.

They are demanding an end to hospital closures and reductions in the number of hospital beds, and a 300 euro a month pay raise.

Patients at risk

Emergency staff say they are overworked, which frustrates patients who sometimes get violent. A series of violent incidents against ER staff at the Saint-Antoine hospital in Paris sparked the current protest on 18 March. It then spread to most of the 25 public hospitals in the capital, before taking off in the regions.

Long emergency room waits can also be fatal. In December a 55-year-old woman died while waiting treatment at Paris’ Lariboisière hospital, which has the busiest emergency room in the city. An investigation concluded that protocol was not followed, because the emergency room was overwhelmed with patients that day.

Trained staff

French Health Minister Agnès Buzyn addressed the ER workers’ concerns on Monday during a visit to the site of a new hospital being built in Corsica. She said she heard their “fatigue and frustration”, but said there was “no miracle solution”.

There are not enough trained emergency room personnel in France to meet the need, she said, adding that this is an international problem.

Buzyn said that the government has introduced a plan to train 400 new staff in coming years. She evoked other solutions to free up current staff to address major emergency cases, including a shift in triage to admit known patients with chronic illnesses directly to hospital and setting up on-call medical centres to treat smaller emergencies.

The Inter-Urgences collective, representing the striking workers, said it was disappointed with the response. The group has called for a national day of action on 6 June.

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