- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

PARIS — The French government is to punish families who fail to keep in touch with elderly relatives, after being shamed by statistics that revealed the suicide rate among retirees is the highest in Europe.

In a country that prides itself on traditional Catholic family values, elderly people left to fend for themselves are committing suicide at a rate of 62 a week, according to the figures released last week.

Under French law, adult offspring are already required to provide for aging parents who do not have the means to look after themselves.

Article 207 of the Civil Code states that children have a legal obligation to “honor and respect” their parents, as well as pay them an allowance and provide or fund a home for them. A judge may set the sum, with nonpayers facing prison or a fine.

Now the Civil Code is to be tightened, making it a crime for descendants of people living alone to “fail to keep themselves regularly informed” of their state of health, and a crime not to intervene should they suddenly be taken ill.

The move comes just six months after 15,000 mostly elderly people died in last summer’s heat wave. Many of their bodies were left unclaimed for weeks because their families were taking their annual vacations.

Describing the heat wave as a “catastrophe,” members of the Senate — France’s second house of parliament — said that the death toll had been made worse by offspring who were indifferent to the fate of their elderly relatives.

According to a parliamentary report, existing laws had simply led to relatives’ checkbooks replacing their compassion. “In nearly all cases, this obligation, despite being theoretically very large, comes down to an obligation to pay,” it said.

The relationship between the French and their elderly parents is affected by the country’s inheritance laws, under which parents are obliged to leave their estates to their children regardless of how badly they have been treated.

The Senate report concluded: “We cannot completely stop the division of family solidarity caused by geographical distance. We’re no longer in the days where three or four generations live under the same roof or in the same village. However, it is not acceptable that children exonerate themselves from all responsibility for their aged parents.”

The latest figures reveal that 3,232 persons over the age of 65 kill themselves in France each year — about a third of the total number of suicides, estimated between 10,000 and 12,000. Whereas many young people fail to commit suicide at the first attempt, officials said that elderly people proved more successful.

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