Fri, Aug 22, 2003 - Page 7 News List

French funeral parlors fan `heat-wave deaths' fire

GUESSING GAME Deaths figures recorded in August far outsripped those for the same month last year, but no proof exists yet that they were heat-related


The biggest French chain of funeral parlors said on Wednesday it has counted 2,600 more deaths this month than in the same period of August last year, raising the prospect that thousands more lives were lost in France's heat wave than officials estimate.

But Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose government has come under fire for its handling of the crisis, warned about giving too much credence to early death toll estimates.

France has been in the midst of a guessing game about how many died when temperatures soared early this month. The government has said that as many as 5,000 people died, though an official count was not expected for weeks.

The death figures reported by funeral home chain OGF on Wednesday suggested that even that high-end estimate -- the last of several by the government -- was too low.

Elisabeth Lichter, an OGF spokeswoman, said the chain had counted 2,604 more deaths in its funeral parlors since Aug. 1 than in the same period last year. Because OGF holds about 25 percent of the market, it multiplied that figure by four to estimate that there were 10,416 more deaths in the period since a year ago.

Shortly after OGF issued its projection, the prime minister issued a statement calling for "prudence" about such estimates, and said precise government figures would be compiled.

"Out of respect for those French people personally touched by this painful crisis, it's necessary to have a scientific study that will establish these reliable figures," Raffarin said.

"Everyone needs the truth," he added.

The government has said most of the victims were elderly people left alone at home. Doctors say heat stroke and dehydration were often the cause of death.

Raffarin also said he had instructed Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei to assemble a panel of experts to estimate the exact number of heat-related deaths and issue a report within a month.

In a statement, OGF predicted that the death toll for the full month of August could be 13,632 more than a year ago.

The government has cited General Funeral Services, a subsidiary of OGF, as one of the sources of information it used to come up with its estimate on the death toll.

The center-right government has come under fire from doctors' groups and rival politicians for its handling of the crisis.

President Jacques Chirac, back from a three-week holiday in Canada, also came under criticism from opponents on Wednesday for remaining silent during the heat wave.

Chirac was to end his silence yesterday with comments on the "exceptional events of the summer and the actions of the government" during the record hot spell, his office said in a statement.

The president was to respond to the issue after a Cabinet meeting, the statement said. He has called for a "very exhaustive" look at the consequences of the heat wave and has instructed several government ministers to report on their agencies' actions, it said.

Earlier Wednesday, Claude Bartolone, a former Socialist urban affairs minister, criticized Chirac for not speaking up sooner about the crisis.

"His silence is a mistake," Bartolone was quoted as saying in Le Parisien newspaper, referring to Chirac.

Last week, as the death toll mounted rapidly, Chirac's office issued a statement saying the president was closely monitoring the situation from Quebec. He has said nothing else in public about the heat wave since then.

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