TCS Daily

La France Hot

By Jeremy Slater - August 27, 2003 12:00 AM

In the dog heat of summer, with a burning sun high in the sky day after day, week after week, La Belle France found out some ugly truths about itself. And right now the usually overly self-confident country is finding it very hard to look straight in the mirror. The cause of this period of self doubt is the loss of an estimated 10,000 of its most elderly and frail citizens, who were left to die while the rest of the country went on holiday.


The canicule, as the French have named this summer's heat wave, has had a devastating effect on farms throughout the country, with only the premier vineyards looking forward to harvest time as the 2003 vintage is expected to be one of the finest for a very long time. Heat may make for good grapes but it has shriveled most of the country's other crops, leaving much of the usually verdant countryside, even in the deepest south, burnt brown.


However, the most devastating effects have been felt in France's sweltering cities, where services have been unable to cope with the numbers of dead and severely ill. Hospitals were so overwhelmed that their usually meticulous systems collapsed under the demands put upon them. The overload was exacerbated by the fact that staff numbers were down due to the annual rush to the beach, which in France occurs every August.


Perhaps most shameful for the French is the realization that this exodus, as usual sans grandpère et grandmère, left some of this society's frailest members at the mercy of record temperatures. Even more galling for concerned citizens were reports that some elderly were simply left by their families at local hospitals for the medical services to care for whether they actually needed it or not. Worse still is the fact that some families, despite the constant news reports on radio and TV, did not check on the whereabouts of their eldest members, giving authorities no choice but to leave the dead in morgues or bury them in paupers' graves so that the bodies can be reclaimed later.


It is true that other Mediterranean countries have found the conditions difficult to cope with. Priests in Italy took the unusual step of allowing funeral services on Sundays. Nowhere, however, does there seem to have been so systematic a breakdown in medical and other services as in France this summer.


This is in a country that usually proudly boasts of the quality of its hospitals, medical care and other services. Perhaps the whole debacle could be left for the French people to come to terms with on their own, but France's politicians and union leaders are among the most aggressive when attacking fellow members of the European Union for having what they consider "inadequate" medical safety nets.


And the usual remedy to such a poor level of service, suggest French politicians, is a hike in the rate of tax to French levels, no matter whether this would be popular with voters of other countries. For it is French politicians at high-level EU meetings who constantly call for a harmonization of taxes, but only up to a level approaching their own. The country's representatives at the recent Convention on a future European constitution argued boisterously for taxation to be taken out of the control of national governments, by suggesting that member states' vetoes on this issue be abolished, and they won the support of Germany. At the coming Intergovernmental Conference in October this is likely to be one of the most contentious issues on the agenda.


The heat wave is also burning the Raffarin government and its drive to reform the country's finances. Already there are calls by the unions for spending to be increased, making it difficult for the prime minister to suggest that what is really needed is less, not more. He has already had to shelve plans for a cut in civil service numbers by proposing that only one new administrator replace three that are retiring and now is likely to be on the back foot over other cuts.


Another difficulty for Raffarin and his government is that his rivals' quick-fix solutions of throwing money at the problem are likely to be more popular than urging people to be more self-reliant and to watch out for each other's well-being. For it is a fact that the French have become used to paying high taxes and in return expecting a high level of public services. Getting them to think that there could be another way of solving the problems France faces could take a long time.


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