Chirac raises death toll to 10,000

Friday, August 22, 2003

PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac promised to correct failings in France's health service Thursday, his first comment on a heat wave his government said probably killed 10,000 people.

Chirac, under fire from opposition politicians and newspapers for remaining silent during the crisis, noted that many victims "died alone in their homes."

He said he has asked for a study of the crisis and its causes from his embattled government, and promised proposals by October to better care for France's growing numbers of elderly people.

"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 that baked France in the first two weeks of August.

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.

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

"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."

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

Time for solidarity

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.

That Chirac 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 Chirac's 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.

"Chirac: a long silence that surprises," conservative-leaning Le Figaro said in an inside-page headline Thursday.

"Chirac counts the dead," said the left-leaning daily Liberation, over a cartoon of Chirac finger-pointing with the prime minister and the health minister.

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, which have called for a parliamentary inquiry into the government response, remained critical Thursday.

Dominique Voynet, a Green Party leader and former environment minister, said the resignation of Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei would "probably be useful," but wouldn't be enough.

"We don't need the resignation, it's a symbol," she said on Europe-1 radio. "The political weakness is in the whole government."

She accused the government of trying to appear sympathetic to victims, while having cut budgets for health.

"I am very shocked to see and to hear these days the compassionate complaints -- the crocodile tears," she said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: