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Opinion: French Leadership Melts in the Heat

An estimated 3,000 people have died as a result of a brutal heat wave that has hit France. Deutsche Welle correspondent Anke Hagedorn comments on how the French government has failed to manage the crisis properly.

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Wilting under the heat -- the Larzarc plateau, southern France with temperatures above 40 degrees celsius.

The heat wave in France has had dramatic consequences: the newspaper Le Parisien spoke of over 2,000 deaths alone in the region of Ile-De-France around the capital of Paris in its Thursday edition. Nationwide the heat is believed to have claimed at least 3,000 victims.

And what is the French government doing? Till now it apparently has stayed home on account of the heat. That's likely what doctors throughout the country have thought as they stood helplessly before overflowing emergency wards. The same goes for the staff from old people’s homes at a loss about how to beat the rising temperatures in the face of a lack of air conditioners, as well as funeral homes and morgues, who couldn’t handle the flood of applications and demands for their services. The bodies of the heat victims had to be stored temporarily in refrigerated tents (photo) at hospitals.

Aufblasbares Kühlzelt in Frankreich

An inflatable refrigerated tent used as a makeshift morgue and already containing 15 bodies in Longjumeau outside Paris.

Belated realization

Instead of offers of help from government officials, there have been harsh words: Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin reacted angrily and spoke of "polemics" in reaction to furious criticism by doctors, who demanded an emergency plan. After weeks of searing hot days, It was only on Thursday that the government finally took an official position on the extent of the heat wave consequences.

Following a crisis and coordination meeting under Raffarin’s leadership, Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei confirmed 1,500 to 3,000 cases of death in connection with the extreme temperatures. Mattei called the situation "extraordinarily serious" and said the massive rise in deaths had taken on the scale of an "epidemic." A late, much too late realization in face of the high fatality figures.

Vacation more important

Until the beginning of this week, no member of the government other than Environment Minister Roselyne Bachelot found it necessary to interrupt their summer vacation to return to Paris.

It was only after immense pressure and scathing public criticism, that Health Minister Mattei responded to the heat consequences from his southern French holiday resort, and the first thing he did, was to defend the government’s stance. The Greens then emphatically demanded the health minister, who had so obviously goofed up with the crisis-management, step down.

Naturally a government can’t be held responsible for extraordinarily high temperatures, much less so can it provide for rain. But it must react fast and efficiently to counter the effects of heat. In France, there’s an emergency plan for all possible crisis situations: for nuclear accidents, for terrorist attacks, for plane crashes. But apparently the government wasn’t equipped for the weather – in other words, they underestimated its ramifications.

Crisis reveals holes in French social system

Jean-Pierre Raffarin

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin

Instead of helping, the government took a Siesta and then interrupted it now and then to paint critical voices as a systematic opposition. The heat victims first had to stack up in the corridors of hospitals for Prime Minister Rafarrin (photo) to finally decide to form an emergency plan on Wednesday. However, this one’s only valid for the metropolitan area of Paris.

The crisis once again clearly exposed fundamental deficits in the French social system such as the chronic lack of staff in hospitals and old people’s homes. The outcome of the heat wave has also re-ignited the debate on energy supply: Over 70 percent of electricity in the country is drawn from nuclear sources, which have reactors that are particularly sensitive to the heat.

In the future, the French as well as other governments will have to come up with ideas how to counteract global climate change and deal more economically with the all-important commodity, water.

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