10,000 Deaths in French Heatwave Spark Vows of Reform

PARIS, France, August 22, 2003 (ENS) - The death toll from this month's heatwave could top 10,000 people, French government officials admitted Thursday. Temperatures during the first two weeks of August soared to 104 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the country, causing thousands of elderly people to suffer and die, many alone in their apartments.

Hospitals across the country were stressed to the breaking point, and funeral parlors and morgues were overwhelmed with bodies. Critics of the government's handling of the crisis demanded ministerial resignations and reinforcements for medical facilities.


French President Jacques Chirac (Photo courtesy Office of the President)
In his first speech on the crisis, a solemn President Jacques Chirac said Thursday that "the shortcomings that we saw in our health organization" during the heatwave will be rectified. He promised an inquiry and extra state services for elderly citizens, who made up the majority of the victims.

At a Cabinet meeting Thursday, the government presented an assessment of the events and a wide ranging plan for prevention of similar disasters. The plan covers the fields of health, the environment, energy, agriculture, and civil safety.

Chirac made a point of paying homage to safety and emergency personnel who were mobilized during the heatwave. He promised that in the future, first aid and emergency organizations will be given the means to deal with "exceptional temporary needs."

The ministers stressed the need for the evaluation of the scope and causes of the tragedy, so "that such a human drama does not reproduce."

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has asked Health Minister Jean-François Mattei to make a rigorous estimate of the number of people who died during the heatwave and report to the government within 30 days. Mattei has appointed a team of epidemiologists with the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, INSERM, to conduct the survey.


Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin visits a residence for the elderly. (Photo courtesy Office of the Prime Minister)
The government will undertake an urgent assessment of the services provided to dependent elderly people, "to define the elements of a national mobilization against the social insulation of the old people," the ministers said. The government intends to assume greater responsibility for the needs of the most fragile old people, they promised.

The ministers agreed that 2003 has been the hottest year for 50 years. They said ground level ozone pollution has reached the highest levels since 1991, due to consumption of energy higher than the seasonal averages.

France has been experiencing a drought over more than half its territory, and 50,000 hectares of forested lands have gone up in smoke due to wildfires, the ministers said.

To accelerate compensation for the damages caused by forest fires, the Prime Minister wrote to President of the European Commission Romano Prodi to ask for funding from the European Union. He will go to Brussels on August 27 to support this request. Contracts of ecological restoration and forest fire prevention plans will be proposed to the affected owners and communities particularly in the Var region of southern France, hard hit by wildfires.

The Prime Minister's office stressed that climate concerns should be integrated into France's definition of its medical risk policy in order to better anticipate and prevent these occurrances. "The current situation lies within the scope of the climatic change which increases the intensity and the frequency of the heatwaves and, by them, increases the risks of death," according to an official statement.

To reduce the effects of pollution on the climate, the government says its Climate Plan 2003 will reinforce and accelerate the reduction of French greenhouse gas emissions with a goal of cutting them by three-fourths by 2050.

A clean vehicles plan, due to be presented in September, will allow France and its industries to be at the forefront of clean technology implementation in the field of transport from 2010, the government said.