Hot enough for you?
August 25, 2003 | More from Don Murray
The scene was macabre: in the Paris suburb of Rungis, home of the city's giant wholesale fruit and vegetable market, one giant refrigerated hangar housed corpses, dozens of them.
At the height of this summer's ferocious heat wave in France, the morgues were full, the hospitals were overwhelmed, funeral homes were besieged. And so, among the fresh tomatoes and the tasty strawberries at Rungis, lay the freshly dead.
How many died because of the record-breaking heat in August? This has become a burning political question. Five thousand, as the hospital service suggests? Ten thousand, as the leading funeral home association has said? The government's answer for days has been: we don't yet know.
Whatever the final figure, the French government already knows the heat wave, the "canicule," has caused it great political damage.
It has been hot and dry in France for three months. But in the first two weeks of August the heat became, for many, literally unbearable successive days of 40 C and above. The old, alone and in un-air-conditioned dwellings, were scythed down. And for days the authorities took little notice.
It was in brutal contrast to the official reaction to several major forest fires in the south in early July. Then thousands of firemen, dozens of fire-fighting planes and a handful of ministers were quickly mobilized to deal with the threat.
Why the difference? In one word: vacations. August is vacation month in France. Over the decades the emptying of offices, the closing of stores, the slowing of the pulse of the country in this month has become almost an immutable rite of the season.
And so the president flew off to Quebec, the prime minister to the mountains, and the minister of health to the south, all to rest. As they frolicked, the temperature rose inexorably.
On August 11, the number of people who died in Paris's public hospitals reached 220. The average figure is 50 a day. On the same day, the minister of health, Jean-François Mattei, stood outside his summer house near the Mediterranean and said: "I don't think we underestimated the danger. To underestimate, you have to be forewarned and the canicule was hard to foresee. Still, I'm in touch with the prime minister each day." The prime minister was still on vacation.
Three days later both men were back in Paris at their desks in their air-conditioned offices. They had been driven back by an outcry in the press, fuelled by medical staff at hospitals understaffed hospitals because, of course, this was the vacation season.
Others preferred not to interrupt their holidays. One of these was the French president, Jacques Chirac. He stayed in Quebec. While he was away, his office issued presidential communiqués condemning the bombings in Baghdad and Jerusalem. But there was not a word about the French victims of the heatwave.
Chirac was not alone. The reason that so many bodies lay in the refrigerated hangar at Rungis was that relatives, on vacation, refused to cut their holidays short to return to the heat and bother of a burial. Their aged Papa or Aunt Bertha was dead and would stay dead and cool for another few days. And so the corpses lay among the vegetables.
Meanwhile, the heatwave has claimed one political victim. No, not the minister of health or the prime minister; still less the president. They are now full of compassion for the elderly and promising that the hospital system will be upgraded, particularly in the summer, to deal with any future heatwave.
The man who resigned was the director general at the Ministry of Health. His "crime," according to his minister, was not to have alerted his political boss in time of the danger.
Nonsense, said Lucien Abenhaim, the minister knew almost as soon as he did. He said he was resigning because he didn't want to be a victim in a "politician's crisis." Abenhaim compared the heatwave to an earthquake of Force 9 on the Richter scale, immense and unpredictable.
Other French public-health experts disagree. They point out that three of the hottest summers in modern French history have been in the last six years. They also point out that the French authorities learned nothing from a similar heatwave in Chicago in 1995 that killed 700 people.
Most of those deaths were preventable American experts concluded and, indeed, in a similar heatwave a few years later there were only a handful of deaths.
Instead, the French government, like all western governments, has spent far more time and money preparing for terrorist attacks. Yet the biggest terrorist attack in modern history, on September 11, 2001, killed far fewer people than the canicule.
The heatwave has abated but August and the vacation season aren't over. And so a dozen civil servants at the Paris City Hall make phone calls. They have been grouped into a "crisis cell" to deal with 300 to 500 corpses still unclaimed around the city. Their job is to try to track down vacationing relatives so the dead don't have to be buried anonymously and unlamented.