France Says Heat Toll May Be 10,000

Published August 21, 2003

| Associated Press

President Jacques Chirac (search) promised to correct failings in France's health services Thursday after a heat wave (search) killed an estimated 10,000 people, including many elderly who were left home alone while their families went on vacation.

Chirac, speaking publicly about the heat wave for the first time, said victims "died alone in their homes." He said he asked for a study of the crisis, and promised proposals by October to better care for France's growing number of elderly.

"Everything will be done to correct the insufficiencies that we noted in our health system," the president said in an address after a Cabinet meeting on the heat wave.

The heat wave, which saw temperatures go as high as 104 in France in the first two weeks of August, caused morgues and funeral homes to overflow with bodies, overwhelmed hospitals and prompted painful soul-searching about France's attitudes about the elderly.

Some critics accused families of abandoning elderly relatives alone at home while they took August vacations. Health workers blamed understaffing and underfunding at hospitals and retirement homes (search). Many accused the government of doing too little, too late.

"These dramas again shed light on the solitude of many of our aged or handicapped citizens," said Chirac. "Aged and handicapped people should be able to count on the solidarity of the French."

The minister for the elderly, Hubert Falco, said after the meeting that "most probably" 10,000 people died. That matched an estimate released a day earlier by France's largest chain of undertakers.

In an apparent effort to calm the storm of criticism, Chirac said "today, the time is for contemplation, solidarity and action."

He called the heat wave "exceptional," echoing some government health officials who said little more could have been done to save lives in such extreme weather.

Chirac had come under fire from opposition politicians and newspapers for remaining silent during the crisis,

That he addressed the nation live on radio and television was a measure of the gravity of the crisis faced by his center-right administration. As president, Chirac generally tends to stay above the fray of day-to-day domestic politics -- an attitude critics have begun to assail considering the high death toll.

Chirac was vacationing in Canada during the heat wave and did not speak about the crisis in public, although aides said he was following the situation. Still, his decision not to break off his vacation irked some of his opponents.

"What wounded the French was the feeling that their leaders were not present on a moral, human and emotional level," Socialist lawmaker Jack Lang, a former education minister, told the daily Le Parisien. "They simply ask: 'Why were you so far away from us during this testing time?"'

The newspaper said 51 percent of 1,000 people polled believed the government response was inadequate.

Death toll estimates rose elsewhere in Europe. Portugal's Health Ministry said Thursday the heat wave probably killed more than 1,300 people in the country. In Spain, the official toll is 100 but newspaper reports suggest it is much higher.

The heat wave claimed the lives of 500-1,000 people since June in the Netherlands, the Central Bureau for Statistics said Thursday. German authorities reported 30 heat wave deaths and said they were investigating 25 other recent deaths.

Without giving a death toll, Chirac said the heat "caused a very large number of victims." He promised a review of France's health surveillance, alert and prevention bodies "to avoid such dramas in the future."

He also said emergency services would be given means to better deal with temporary crises. He stopped short, however, of saying whether the government -- already criticized by the European Union for overspending on the public sector -- would give emergency services more funding.

France's medical system is widely regarded as one of the best in the world. But some health workers said it fell short in August because of a law which has restricted France's working week to 35 hours, which has led to staff shortages, and because hospital and retirement home workers were on holiday.

Opposition parties have called for a parliamentary inquiry into the government response. Some have called for the resignation of Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei.

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