France says up to 10,000 dead in heat wave
PARIS — As many as 10,000 people may have died in France’s heat wave, the government acknowledged Thursday, and a solemn President Jacques Chirac promised health system changes. But he also leveled a criticism at the public, saying many elderly victims “died alone in their homes.”
Chirac, under fire from opposition politicians and newspapers for not speaking out earlier, promised “everything will be done” to correct failings in the health system that was overwhelmed by victims of the heat. But his government said ministers would not resign.
While praising emergency, hospital and retirement home workers, Chirac peppered his address to the nation with criticism of a society he said needs to better care for its most vulnerable members.
“The heat wave touched the health and daily lives of the French. It caused a large number of victims,” Chirac said after a Cabinet meeting on the crisis. “Many fragile people died alone in their homes. These dramas again shed light on the solitude of many of our aged or handicapped citizens.”
France’s longest and hottest heat wave, with temperatures that topped 104 in the first two weeks of August, probably caused some 10,000 deaths, said Hubert Falco, secretary of state for the elderly.
In a separate interview with the newspaper Le Monde, he said the crisis showed France is coping badly with aging, a problem shared by many developed nations.
Falco said “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.
But nearly 80 percent of retirement facilities are short-staffed, he said. “Our society was not prepared,” Falco said.
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.
The Central Bureau for Statistics said the heat claimed 500-1,000 lives in the Netherlands, and Portugal’s Health Ministry estimated more than 1,300 dead.
Germany, which was not as hot and is counting its dead more slowly, has tallied just 30 heat-related deaths.
Italy’s Health Ministry has refused to give figures, but calls by The Associated Press to several major cities found marked increases in deaths compared with last year. Genoa had 693 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 last year.
In France, morgues and funeral homes overflowed with bodies, hospitals struggled, and painful questions are being asked about attitudes toward the elderly.
“People have lost their sense of responsibility. They think the government is going to resolve every problem in their life,” said Nadia Finkielman, lending moral support to a grieving friend at a Paris morgue where mourning families prepared to bury their dead.
Alerted by a caretaker who noticed her mail piling up, police in the Normandy town of Caen discovered the body of a 73-year-old woman Wednesday who lived alone and apparently died a month ago.
Some critics blamed families for leaving elderly relatives at home while they took August vacations. Health workers blamed understaffing and underfunding at hospitals and retirement homes.
“As a result of having counted the health costs for the French down to the last cent, we’re today counting the dead,” said Communist Party lawmaker Alain Bocquet.
That Chirac spoke live on radio and television was a measure of the pressure faced by his center-right administration. As president, Chirac generally stays above the political fray — an attitude now being assailed.
Chirac was vacationing in Canada during the heat wave and did not speak about the crisis until Thursday, although aides said he was following the situation. Some critics noted that unlike former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, who broke off a vacation to Egypt when France suffered storms in 1999, Chirac did not return home.
“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 daily Le Parisien.
“Chirac, a long surprising silence,” conservative-leaning Le Figaro said. “Chirac counts the dead,” said left-leaning Liberation.
France’s medical system is widely regarded as one of the world’s best. But some health workers said it fell short in August because of laws restricting France’s work week to 35 hours, worsening staff shortages.
Chirac promised reviews and said emergency services would be given means to deal with crises. But he stopped short of saying whether the government — already criticized by the European Union for overspending — would provide more funding.
Opposition leaders remained critical.
“Mr. Chirac’s belated compassion cannot exonerate the government of its responsibility,” said Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party.
Gilles Lemaire of the Greens called it an “empty speech, devoid of concrete proposals.”