French PM Deflects Criticism for Handling of Heat Wave

With as many as 3,000 people, mostly elderly, killed in France from Europe's withering heat wave, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (search) toured a retirement home on Saturday and defended his government's response amid opposition criticism.

Raffarain urged the opposition not to exploit the crisis for political ends and called on the public to do a better job looking after the country's elderly.

"It's time for solidarity, not a polemic," the prime minister told reporters during a visit to a retirement home in the town of Fleury-sur-Ouche in the eastern Burgundy (search) region.

The effects of the heat wave that scorched much of Europe in recent weeks eased Saturday, with temperatures returning closer to normal across much of the continent. But lingering torrid weather in parts of Italy and Spain continued to fan forest fires.

Raffarin's center-right government has faced criticism for allegedly reacting too slowly to a record hot spell that officials said Thursday has caused the death of between 1,500 and 3,000 people in France starting Aug. 7. Doctors cited heat stroke (search) and dehydration (search) among the causes.

Health ministry officials say final, complete figures on the death toll aren't expected until at least next week.

The crisis caused morgues and funeral parlors to overflow with corpses. On Friday, gravediggers were recalled to work on a national holiday, and authorities took over a huge refrigerated storeroom at a farmers' market outside Paris to hold bodies before burial.

A Paris regional funeral official said families would likely have to wait 10-15 days to have relatives buried.

Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei has called the deadly effects of the heat wave "a true epidemic." He said the government reacted as quickly as it heard of heat-related deaths.

But political rivals have urged him to step down for not heeding doctors' warnings of the potential for deaths.

Arnaud Montebourg, a top Socialist lawmaker, told reporters Friday it would be "dignified" for Mattei to "start thinking about the way he is going to phrase his letter of resignation."

Raffarin, who had cut short his vacation on Thursday to help manage the crisis, defended Mattei. "The search for a scapegoat is not the solution for me," Raffarin said in comments aired on French radio.

About half of the deaths took place outside hospitals, often among elderly people left alone at home by families taking holidays in August, Raffarin said. France all but shuts down this month.

"This solitude of elderly people is a great flaw of French society," he said, launching "a call of national solidarity to lend a hand to the elderly."

Temperatures that scorched much of Europe returned to normal Friday, though it was still hotter than normal in Italy.

Italian firefighters battled a wildfire in the hills near Padua, and about a dozen fires burned in the northeastern countryside.

Sharply cooler weather brought some relief to Spain, where authorities have blamed the heat wave for at least 42 deaths. In the capital, Madrid, it was 81 degrees.

But forest fires continued in several areas such as the southwest Extremadura region, where more than 25,000 acres have been blackened since Thursday. In the northeast Catalonia region, 5,000 people who were evacuated Thursday from their homes in the town of Macanet de la Selva were allowed to return.