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France Turns to Help Farmers in Heat Wave

August 22, 2003

PARIS (AP) _ France’s government turned its attention Friday to farmers whose animals have died and whose crops have withered in an intense heat wave estimated to have killed up to 10,000 people.

Agriculture Minister Herve Gaymard estimated that the damage to French farms was between $1.1 billion and $4.4 billion.

``Everyone knows the cost is high for farmers, and national solidarity must play a role,″ he told Europe-1 radio. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was to host talks with farmers’ representatives later Friday.

Jean-Michel Lemetayer, president of the FNSEA farmers union, said agriculture was devastated.

``The atmosphere in the countryside is extremely morose,″ he told The Associated Press. ``Every day without rain aggravates the situation.″

On Thursday, President Jacques Chirac made his first comments on the heat wave crisis, promising ``everything will be done″ to correct failings in the health system that was overwhelmed by victims.

He also leveled criticism at the public, saying many elderly victims ``died alone in their homes.″

``These dramas again shed light on the solitude of many of our aged or handicapped citizens,″ said Chirac, who has been criticized for not speaking about the heat crisis earlier.

France’s longest and hottest heat wave, with temperatures that topped 104 in the first two weeks of August, probably caused some 10,000 deaths, said Hubert Falco, secretary of state for the elderly. The government says a complete death toll is still being compiled.

In a separate interview with Le Monde newspaper, Falco said the crisis showed France is coping badly with aging.

Falco said ``mortality linked to the heat wave was highest″ among people over 85 _ who now number 1.2 million in France, and in 10 years will total 2.4 million.

Nearly 80 percent of retirement facilities are short-staffed, he said. ``Our society was not prepared,″ Falco said.

Falco told another newspaper, La Provence, that he envisions a new emergency plan for retirement homes, where many victims died. He said he wants to be able to mobilize personnel quickly in case of disasters and decentralize decision-making.

While other European governments have not reported the huge death toll of France, signs are emerging of significant spikes in deaths in several countries where temperatures also soared.

The Central Bureau for Statistics said the heat claimed 500-1,000 lives in the Netherlands, and Portugal’s Health Ministry estimated more than 1,300 dead.

Germany, which was not as hot and is counting its dead more slowly, has tallied just 30 heat-related deaths.

Italy’s Health Ministry has refused to give figures, but calls by The Associated Press to several major cities found marked increases in deaths compared with last year. Genoa had 693 in the first 18 days of August, compared with 475 in the whole month last year. In Turin, 732 died, more than 500 of them aged over 70, compared with 388 last year.

In France, morgues and funeral homes overflowed with bodies and painful questions are being asked about why so many elderly people were left alone.

``People have lost their sense of responsibility,″ said Nadia Finkielman, lending support to a grieving friend at a Paris morgue. ``They think the government is going to resolve every problem in their life.″

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