France’s ‘Suspended’: Legions of unvaccinated healthworkers still barred, without pay, 18 months on
By Gina Doggett
A documentary making the rounds in France – mostly outside of Paris, where it has been broadly shunned – gives the microphone to seven healthcare workers who took the decision in the summer of 2021 to forfeit their jobs rather than submit to a mandate to get vaccinated against covid.
To this day, between 100,000 and 130,000 of these professionals remain without pay and unable to apply for unemployment benefits, according to Fabien Moine, the director of Suspended – Healthcare workers between two worlds, which has been shown in more than 100 cinemas around France, but viewed only twice in public venues in the capital.
“Their employers and the media were indifferent to their plight, an attitude shared by the public at large – the same public that took to their balconies every evening at eight o’clock to beat pots and pans in their honour,” notes the jacket copy of the film, which has been translated into English, German, Italian and Spanish.
Health Minister François Braun, speaking to anglophone journalists on February 21, dismissed a questioner’s “more than 100,000” figure with a wave of the hand, saying the true number was no more than “a few thousand”. The event, organised by the Anglo-American Press Association, came the day after a breakthrough for the suspended healthcare workers. France’s Haute Autorité pour la Santé (High Authority for Health – HAS) advised that the vaccination requirement be lifted, pending a separate review by the Comité Consultatif National d’Ethique (CCNE – the National Consultative Committee on Ethics).
The HAS, an independent body whose opinions are generally followed by the government, was quick to add that anti-covid jabs should continue to be “strongly recommended”.
Braun, in an interview with a panel of French journalists, asked: “Should we accept that people who are not sufficiently protected be near the most fragile people?” He described an “ethical problem” posed by the return to work of unvaccinated staff alongside colleagues who accepted the jabs and stayed the course during the height of the covid crisis.
President Emmanuel Macron said in November 2022 that he was in favour of reintegrating the workers, promising to seek a “scientific” opinion rather than a “political” one. “If the scientists tell us that it is desirable … to reintegrate the healthcare workers, the government must do so,” he said during a visit to the Burgundy capital Dijon.
The HAS confirmed its opinion on March 30, with Braun saying he would consult with hospital and healthcare groups “to define implementation modalities”, adding that the rehiring of suspended healthcare workers would be “rapidly” ordered through a decree.
Eric Loridan, the suspended surgeon in the documentary, was sceptical, predicting “foot-dragging”, notably on key questions such as that of back pay.
Senator Sylviane Noël, who launched a failed bid for the reinstatement of the suspended workers in July 2022, described a “Kafkaesque” situation in which exhausted staff must work while covid-positive and unvaccinated covid-negative nurses cannot.
A numbers game
The true number of ‘suspended’ is hard to pin down because it includes firefighters, public and private hospital administration employees and ambulance drivers. Healthcare workers targeted by the requirement include those at nursing homes including volunteers.
Indeed, the numbers are all over the place. They range from Braun’s “a few thousand”, to 15,000 according to Senator Noël, to more than 100,000 according to Suspended director Moine. Braun’s health ministry cited a figure of 12,000 in July last year, including technical and administrative staff. But that same month, government spokesman Olivier Véran (whose previous job was health minister, by the way) said the suspension concerned 600 nurses out of a total of 240,000 in the total public and private hospital system, plus 75 doctors and pharmacists out of some 85,000. The Fédération Hospitalière de France (French Hospital Federation – FHF) in November 2022 estimated that 4,000 healthcare professionals including 500 nurses were suspended out of a total of 1.2 million employees.
Barely making ends meet
The general public is largely unaware of their plight. “People think it’s been resolved because there’s no more vaccine pass,” Moine told Holding The Line. He said thousands of complaints have been filed to no avail with France’s labour tribunals (known as Prud’homme) attributing the outcomes to a judicial system that is “too corrupt.”
“I’m relying on help from friends and family,” said Judith Rémy, a cardiologist for whom the choice to leave what she called a “sinking ship” was evident. The healthcare system is “no longer made for human health,” she said, pointing to a ban on prescribing “medications that worked against covid” such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. Once the pride of the nation, the French healthcare system is deteriorating, with emergency services closing at night, non-essential operations postponed and hospital corridors lined with patients on stretchers for lack of beds. In the face of staff shortages, Macron has suggested a loosening of rules to allow overtime, working more than six consecutive days, and turnover time between one shift and the next. Current law requires a rest period of at least 11 hours between shifts.
To make ends meet, many suspended healthcare workers have taken up odd jobs with no relation to their training, working in factories, as supermarket cashiers, or night guards. A former teacher’s aide working with the handicapped told the Strasbourg online newspaper Rue 89: “I had a whole series of different jobs, all short-term, night shifts, working for [hypermarket] Leclerc, with a beekeeper. I quickly found myself in a precarious situation and wound up changing my profession. Now I work with horses.”
Eric Loridan, a gastroenterology surgeon, has managed to find stints as a substitute at understaffed hospitals around the country thanks to a loophole: he can furnish a certificate showing that he has recovered from covid, a strategy that lasts four months at a time. Loridan is the most outspoken of the Suspended subjects, garnering himself the “conspiracy theorist” label for a number of YouTube videos he produced questioning the government’s covid policies. He is currently fighting a three-month suspension by the certifying board in his northern Hauts-de-France region.
Aurélie Colin, the midwife in the documentary, formally resigned to begin receiving benefits but the move precludes her from ever returning to a hospital job. She has set up a business as a perinatal consultant.
Some have taken their own lives in despair, according to author Elsa Ruillère, who interviewed 41 suspended workers for a book, Paroles de Soignants Suspendus (Words of Suspended Healthcare Workers).
Eric Loridan, reacting to the health minister’s dismissiveness regarding the number of suspended healthcare workers, said he wasn’t surprised. “These people are in denial. Even if there was only one, only a single healthcare worker suspended for refusing the covid vaccine, that would be a scandal and a huge stain on this sickening country,” he said.
The media have cooperated in ignoring the issue, noted the documentary’s director, Moine. For the authorities, “there’s no need to justify themselves because no one asks about it.”
If the government wants to hire back the workers while staying under the radar, now might be a good time to become the last European country to do so, while engulfed in protests over pension reforms that were railroaded through parliament on March 16 – a situation that caused Britain’s King Charles III to cancel a state visit to France.