PARIS (AP) — Hospital workers rallied in cities around France on Tuesday to demand better pay and more investment in the country’s public hospital system, and police fired tear gas at troublemakers on the sidelines of the protest march in Paris.
Although French hospitals are considered to be among the world’s best, they struggled to handle a rush of COVID-19 patients after years of cost cuts. France has reported nearly 30,000 coronavirus-related deaths, the fifth-highest pandemic death toll worldwide, and the country’s hospitals have treated more than 100,000 people with the virus.
In Paris, thousands of demonstrators, many wearing white medical coats, marched peacefully through the Left Bank. As the crowd reached the gold-domed Invalides monument, a few protesters threw paving stones, police fired tear gas and a fire sent black smoke rising over the neighborhood.
The hospital labor unions that led the protest denounced the aggressive behavior. Peaceful protests were held in the southern city of Marseille and other sites around France.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, the protest organizers criticized the government’s policy of “austerity” that they say reduced resources to bare bones. They are calling for increased wages and a freeze on hospital closures and service reductions.
The government is negotiating with medical representatives after President Emmanuel Macron promised reforms.
French nurses and doctors faced off with Macron at a leading Paris hospital last month, demanding a rethink of a once-renowned public health system that quickly became overwhelmed by tens of thousands of virus patients.
As the virus raced across France in March and saturated several hospitals, Macron deployed the armed forces to build the country’s first peacetime field hospital and to move patients and doctors around in military transport jets and specially fitted high-speed trains.
The issue of stretched hospitals predates the virus crisis. Emergency room workers held strikes and protests for months last year demanding more hiring and funding after years of job losses.