- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2003

PARIS — Problems are piling up on President Jacques Chirac’s government after a summer heat wave left thousands of elderly French dead of heat-related ailments.

Critics say the government failed to anticipate the needs of the hospitals and homes for the aged, particularly as the meteorological service predicted a long period of heat.

About half of the hospital personnel were allowed to go on their annual summer vacations.

In addition to the death toll, $4 billion worth of crops were destroyed by drought and 100,000 acres of forests were burned during the worst heat wave since 1947.

At the same time, the economy slumped beyond all forecasts, putting France on the brink of recession along with Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. The four countries represent 75 percent of the economic strength of the “euroland,” which is the area that has adopted the euro as its common currency.

Public debt in France is expected to climb to more than 60 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), passing the ceiling set by the European stability pact.

Officials concede that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s budget for next year is virtually in tatters, while farmers demand compensation for the lost crops, underpaid teachers threaten strikes and the whole country clamors for an investigation into the ailing hospital and health system.

The government’s return to work after the summer pause is being described by the French media as “at high risk.”

In his first gesture toward the angry farmers, Mr. Raffarin promised to release the equivalent of $550 million in emergency aid — about 14 percent of the estimated losses.

Meanwhile, the various ministries demand more funds: the Education Ministry for more teachers, the Justice Ministry for more judges to cope with crowded court calendars and the Interior Ministry for a more effective security apparatus in crime-ridden urban ghettos.

Government sources say Mr. Raffarin needs to find some answers to these problems before seriously coping with the aftermath of the killer heat wave, the state of the hospitals and of the homes for the aged.

So far, there has been no significant political fallout, except for the socialist opposition’s stinging criticism of the handling of the heat crisis.

The only official victim so far was Lucien Abenhaim, director-general in the Ministry of Health, who resigned. Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei has kept his job.

Newspaper reports yesterday said that between 300 and 400 bodies had not been claimed outside Paris.

More than 100 bodies lay in refrigerated trucks outside a city-run warehouse in the southern suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine, reports said. City officials vowed to bury them, whether or not families claim them.

While Mr. Raffarin kept a low profile during the heat wave (the weekly Cabinet strategy meetings were suspended), President Jacques Chirac was vacationing in Canada.

He conveyed condolences to the United Nations after the bombing of its headquarters in Baghdad, but kept a “surprisingly long silence” on the victims of the heat, according to the daily Le Figaro.

Only after his return did he promise “total transparence” in the search for the “reasons of the tragedy.”

Meanwhile, the media continue to stress the faults of the authorities, pointing out that half of the heat victims were people older than age 85. Many had been alone in stifling apartments while their families left for vacation.

“What happened?” and “We have abandoned our old” were the typical editorial headlines across the entire political spectrum.

Official sources said the government’s room to maneuver in the present economic situation is extremely limited. It cannot abandon its promise to lower taxes and, despite the deficit of $18 billion, it cannot reform the generous health insurance system, part of the well-embedded welfare-state concept.

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