Government officials have accused the victims families of abandoning their elders, in an attempt to direct the blame away from the states responsibility for an understaffed health system and the lack of government action to address the crisis. As if to add insult to injury, the government has floated the idea of eliminating one of the countrys 11 national holidays, supposedly to pay for improved care for the elderly.
During the first half of August, France was hit by daily temperatures of up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Increasing numbers of people, especially elderly retirees, succumbed to dehydration and hyperthermia. As medical personnel and undertakers pointed to the mounting death toll, government officials took no emergency measures and denied what was happening. Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei was shown on television August 11 at his vacation home in southern France dismissing reports of the catastrophic death rates, alongside footage of overwhelmed emergency rooms. According to doctors, about 30 people usually die each day in the Paris area. With the heat wave the daily toll jumped to about 180.
It was only on August 14 that Mattei and French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin met and announced some steps to increase hospital staffing and open more beds.
The disaster came after several years of cutbacks in health care and other services such as retirement homes, by both the current conservative government and the previous Socialist Party-led regime. Many small hospitals have been closed. Medical staffs estimate that a 10 percent increase in personnel is needed to provide proper care.
CNN quoted Katia Guiermet, an emergency room nurse at the Avicenne hospital near Paris, describing the lack of basic materials to care for those suffering from the heat. We really do feel quite desperate, she said August 14. We dont feel incompetent, but its really difficult for people suffering from heat stroke when you dont have any ice or air conditioning.
Weve been saying for quite a while that there arent enough workers in retirement homes, said Luc Broussy, a spokesperson for the Synerpa union, which organizes workers in these homes.
While patients were crammed into beds in hallways of facilities without air conditioning, such as the Saint-Antoine hospital in Paris, air-conditioned tents were set up to hold the bodies of the dead as the morgues filled to capacity.
Abandoned old folks?
As the scope of the deaths began to emerge, big-business politicians and pundits blamed families for abandoning their old folks as they took off to beaches and campgrounds for the long vacations, by U.S. standards, that many French workers get in August. The media repeatedly stressed how many retirees in France live alone and depend on younger relatives to help them out. But many of those who died were actually living in retirement homes.
The mayor of the city of Amboise, Bernard Debre, blamed young generations that dont want to take care of the elders.
Health Minister Mattei put forward the same line, saying the deaths were a brutal revelation of a social fracture, of the solitude and isolation of the aged. Mattei defended the governments actions as adequate, saying, I have nothing to hide, and rejected suggestions that he should resign.
Much of the commentary on the issue in the media in Europe and North America has revealed the reality and morality of big-business prejudice against the elderly as people who have lived too long and are a burden on the employers class until they die.
Commenting in the Financial Times August 31, for example, Dominique Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, stated that the death toll has provoked an unprecedented bout of national soul-searching. Today, Moisi wrote, the elderly are a burden and an obstacle to the cult of individual freedom that dominates our lifestyle, showing a loss of the spiritual guidance of established religion and simple respect for family life. The author went on to brag that, by contrast, I have had the privilege of caring for my parents in their slow departure from life, well into their nineties.
Mattei and others quipped that about 400 bodies of those who died in Paris that werent immediately claimed by relatives was evidence that the problem was poor family values. By early September, however, all but 57 bodiesless than half of 1 percent of the totalhad been claimed. French president Jacques Chirac attended a funeral for these 57 people September 3. An aide cynically said that the president wanted to show the solidarity of the entire nation with the isolated people.
Cut holiday for solidarity
Chiracs brand of solidarity is revealed by the plans he has asked the government to prepare to supposedly improve services for the elderly. What has been dubbed the Aging and Solidarity plan wont be officially proposed until October. But on August 27 the government floated the idea that a key component would be eliminating an as-yet-unspecified national holiday.
Hamlaoui Mekachera, secretary of state for war veterans, asserted that taxes on the extra days work would go to finance care for the elderly. But most important, he said, was the symbolic importance of common sacrifice that this would register. The gesture of solidarity is more important than the financial gesture, he stated.
The secretary of state for the elderly, Hubert Falco, pointed to the precedent of a similar take-back of a holiday in Germany in 1995. It would be, as is the case in Germany, a holiday that would be worked to the advantage of national solidarity, he said.
While union officials said they would not accept eliminating a holiday, Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, president of the bosses association MEDEF, called the proposal fantastic. He expressed his enthusiasm to Europe-1 radio, saying, The idea that we can solve problems by working more is a big first for our country.
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