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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 17:53 GMT
French doctors start week of strikes
Generic picture of GP and patient
GPs complain they work long hours for low fees
French health workers have kicked off a week of industrial action which is expected to bring unprecedented disruption to the country's medical services.

A national strike of hospital workers was called on Monday to protest about staff shortages after the introduction of a 35-hour working week.

Bernard Kouchner
Bernard Kouchner: Doctors' conditions must improve
The disruption is set to continue on Tuesday as nurses take to the streets, and will culminate on Wednesday with a call for a "day without doctors," which has received widespread support throughout the medical professions.

Unions said that by late afternoon significant numbers of staff had stopped working, but that a reduced service was still being provided.

"Patients who need health care and who to go the hospital are taken care of," said Bernard Henin of the Force Ouvriere union.

"Even during major mobilisation we always consider that the patient comes first."

French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner said he understood the doctors' anger and that their living and working conditions had to be improved.

Strikers' demands

Monday's strike was called by four trade unions, which are demanding the creation of 80,000 new jobs to compensate for the shortening of the working week in public hospitals.

These unions - including two of the biggest in the health sector - reject an agreement reached by other unions with the government for the creation of 45,000 compensatory jobs.

The disruption comes after a weekend of chaos in hospital emergency rooms, caused by general practitioners refusing to visit patients at home.

They are demanding a 15% rise in consultation fees and 46% rise in payments for home visits. Their current incomes average 51,000 euros ($45,000) per year and they typically work a 58-hour week.

On Tuesday attention will focus on nurses as they take their demands for a review of fees and payments to the streets of Paris.

Government under pressure

Whatever the outcome of those talks, it is unlikely to deflect support from the planned highpoint of the week's events - the "day without doctors" on Wednesday.

Most GPs are expected to heed the unions' calls to close their doors for the day and their action has the support of many specialists, emergency workers and private practitioners.

The force of the strike is likely to hit the French public hard, coming at a time when services are in any case under strain from the usual bout of winter maladies, including influenza and bronchitis.

Television images of exhausted hospital staff, and patients left for hours in waiting rooms and corridors, has shocked the country.

But there is popular sympathy for the health workers and, with presidential and legislative elections due this year, the government will be under pressure to bend to their demands.

See also:

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France's 'winter of discontent'
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Scan strike by French doctors
02 Jan 02 | Business
French bank unions call off strike
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Strikes Ó la Franšaise
07 Dec 01 | Europe
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