French Focus on Heat Damage to Farms

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France announced a $525 million aid package Friday for farmers whose animals died by the millions and whose crops withered in a heat wave (search) estimated to have killed 10,000 people.

France's main farmer's union welcomed Friday's aid package of funds, deferred tax payments, cheap loans and money for transporting fodder, saying it was going "in the right direction."

"The atmosphere in the countryside is extremely morose," Jean-Michel Lemetayer, president of the FNSEA union, told The Associated Press. "Every day without rain aggravates the situation."

Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard estimated the damage to French farms was between $1.1 billion and $4.4 billion.

About 4 million chickens died, as did another 500,000 set aside for breeding, a loss likely to lead to price hikes, France's main poultry farmers' association said. Some 300,000 farmed rabbits also perished.

The wheat harvest is expected to drop by 15 percent compared to last year and corn production by nearly 28 percent, said France's largest cereal (search) growers' union. Many areas of France have had 20 percent to 50 percent less rain than normal in six months of drought, the government said.

"Everyone knows the cost is high for farmers, and national solidarity must play a role," Gaymard, the agriculture minister, told Europe-1 radio. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was to host talks with farmers' representatives later Friday.

A day after promising that "everything will be done" to correct health system failings exposed by the crisis, President Jacques Chirac on Friday visited a hospital for the elderly in northern Paris (search), meeting doctors and comforting patients, his office said.

On Thursday, in his first public comments on the heat wave, Chirac said many of the elderly victims "died alone in their homes."

"These dramas again shed light on the solitude of many of our aged or handicapped citizens," said Chirac, who has been criticized for not speaking about the crisis earlier.

Gilles Catoire, the Socialist mayor of Clichy, a Paris suburb, called for a national day of mourning for the victims.

France's longest and hottest heat wave, with temperatures that topped 104 degrees in the first two weeks of August, probably caused some 10,000 deaths, said Hubert Falco, secretary of state for the elderly. The government says a complete death toll is still being compiled.

In a separate interview with Le Monde newspaper, Falco said the crisis showed France is coping badly with the aging.

"Mortality linked to the heat wave was highest" among people over 85 -- who now number 1.2 million in France, and in 10 years will total 2.4 million, he said.

Nearly 80 percent of retirement facilities are short-staffed, he said. "Our society was not prepared," Falco said.

Falco told another newspaper, La Provence, that he envisions a new emergency plan for retirement homes, where many victims died. He said he wants to be able to mobilize personnel quickly in case of disasters and decentralize decision-making.

While other European governments have not reported the huge death toll of France, signs are emerging of significant spikes in deaths in several countries where temperatures also soared.

Bowing to public demands, Italy's Health Ministry said Friday it would investigate deaths there. Previously, the ministry had insisted it was almost impossible to determine whether deaths -- particularly among the elderly or gravely ill -- were directly linked to high temperatures. But public advocacy groups and others called for an official inquiry, following media reports estimating death rates rose dramatically during the first half of August, particularly in major cities of northern Italy.

Calls by The Associated Press to several cities found marked increases in deaths compared with last year, although the causes weren't certain.

Genoa had 693 deaths in the first 18 days of August, compared with 475 in the whole month last year. In Turin, 732 died, more than 500 of them aged over 70, compared with 388 in the same period last year.

In Spain, Health Minister Ana Pastor said her ministry also would review the number deaths blamed on the heat wave.

So far, Spain has tallied 101 heat-related deaths. But Spanish newspapers poring over funeral parlor and civil registry records suggested the toll could be far higher.

In the Netherlands, the Central Bureau for Statistics said the heat claimed 500 to 1,000 lives, while Portugal's Health Ministry estimated more than 1,300 died there.

Germany, which was not as hot and is counting its dead more slowly, has tallied just 30 heat-related deaths.