MARSEILLE – Nestled in the cinderblock complex of Marseille’s sprawling La Timone hospital stands the intern residency building, home to a community of French student doctors holding an exceptional, open-ended strike to demand a better future.
Protesting interns in white coats and blue hair nets wave signs made from brooms and bedsheets, tooting trumpets and banging drums.
Hanging from lampposts in his scrubs, Xavier Charléty chanted slogans through a megaphone to his colleagues marching through the streets of Marseille as their strike began earlier this month.
France’s vaunted public hospital system is increasingly stretched to its limits after years of cost cuts, and the interns at La Timone — one of the country’s biggest hospitals — say their internships are failing to prepare them as medical professionals. Instead, the doctors-in-training are being used to fill the gaps.
“They call us students, but when they need us, they call us doctors,” says Charléty, a general medicine intern and an active member of the Autonomous Union for Interns of the Hospitals of Marseille.
The movement isn’t directly linked to the retirement strikes convulsing France, but reflects a nationwide worry that public services are falling victim to global market pressures.
After their union meetings, the interns gather together for dinner, usually leftover hospital meals, in their residence's communal kitchen.
Graffiti decorates walls around the brutalist, nine-floor high-rise, as do signs reading “Interns on strike.”
“It is a kind of shelter, when people around you start to talk about the strike and how things can change, it gives you strength,” says Vincent Achour, a psychiatry intern.
The interns proudly wear their uniforms and name tags even while on strike, demonstrating their attachment to the profession. They’re torn between guilt at leaving their posts – and their patients – and determination to call attention to the precarious conditions at La Timone.
Strike-related disruptions have sent hospital management scrambling to assign senior doctors to fulfil the roles of their absent apprentices. French hospitals are required by law to provide a minimum level of service even during strikes.
Pediatrics intern Smranda Deaconu says she will return to work the week of Christmas because she can't bear to see the strain on her colleagues brought about by her absence.
As late-stage medical students specializing in their respective departments, the interns are still learning but often work the same hours and conduct the same procedures as their fully qualified superiors.
The strike is unusual because in the past, interns would formally declare themselves on strike yet still go to work, not receiving pay for the hours they complete. Charlety called this form of protest “meaningless.”
His union is determined to keep up the pressure through the holidays. The health minister is meeting hospital employee representatives next month, in hopes of finding solutions for their mountain of grievances.
Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.