Hollande calls inquiry after pregnant woman loses baby in rush to hospital

The still-birth of a baby on a French motorway has started a political row over cuts in medical care in a country often said to have one of the best health systems in the world.

President François Hollande has ordered an inquiry into the death of the infant, which was delivered two months prematurely as the child's parents drove along the A20 route in the south-west of the country to a maternity unit more than an hour from their village.

Medical pressure groups blamed a decade-old policy of concentrating health facilities in large towns and cities to save money and to cope with a shortage of specialist state doctors.

Mr Hollande, who has plans to draft more doctors into rural areas, said the baby's death was a reminder that the "medical desertification" of large parts of France "could not be tolerated". It is unclear, however, what can be done to reverse the erosion of small maternity units – by 50 per cent in 30 years – when the health system is €14.7bn in the red and the government is struggling to cut its budget deficit.

The baby was still-born in a car at a service station as the parents drove from their village in the Lot region to a maternity unit at Brive-la-Gaillarde, in the Corrèze. Their local maternity hospital in Figeac closed three years ago. The mother, 35, had been warned by her gynaecologist that morning that she should go to hospital immediately. It is unclear why she and her husband chose to drive rather than ask for an ambulance.

The mayor of Lacapelle-Marival, where the couple live, said the baby's death had shocked and angered villagers. "The whole village is in mourning," said Pascal Lewicki. "This young couple is very popular here and the mother has been trying to have a baby for some years. We warned in 2009 that the closure of the maternity hospital in Figeac could have disastrous consequences."

Dr Jean Marty, president of the French association of gynaecologist-obstetricians, pointed out that the policy of closing small maternity units had coincided with a surge in pre-natal and post-natal fatalities. France has fallen in the past 13 years from Europe's seventh-safest country in which to give birth, to the 20th safest – with 3.8 deaths before the age of one for every 1,000 children born.

The policy of closing small maternity hospitals is driven by a need to reduce costs and by a "bureaucratic vision" that big medical units are safer, Dr Marty said. There is also a shortage of medical specialists willing to work in rural areas for low state fees.

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