Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Chirac breaks silence on deaths

MUCH CRITICIZED The French president and several other ministers were berated by the public for their handling of the deaths of thousands during a severe heat wave

THE GUARDIAN , PARIS

In a rare public address to the nation, French President Jacques Chirac conceded on Thursday that weaknesses in France's health system had contributed to thousands of heat-related deaths in recent weeks. The day after his return from a three-week holiday, Chirac broke his long and much-criticized silence to express sympathy with the families of the many people who had "died alone in their homes" during the "exceptional" heat wave.

The minister for the elderly admitted that 10,000 people had "most probably" died in what, after days of denials, is being seen in France as a humanitarian catastrophe. During a highly charged cabinet meeting, the first after the fraught holidays, Chirac called on several key ministers to explain their part in the weeks of crisis that have troubled France in his absence.

In the course of the two-hour session, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy spoke about the forest fires which destroyed thousands of hectares of land in the south of the country, the environment minister reported on the record-breaking pollution levels, the beleaguered Minister of Health Jean-Francois Mattei was forced to explain why hospitals had coped so badly with the aftermath of the heat wave, while the agriculture minister outlined the massive scale of problems facing farmers after months of drought.

Stressing that this was a time for "solidarity, contemplation and action" it was clear that Chirac did not intend to put pressure on Mattei to resign, despite the wave of furious demands for his departure from opposition politicians and much of the media.

The president offered no apology for the disastrous events of the past few weeks, praising instead the devo made available to the emergency services so that they were better able to respond to future crises. "Everything will be done to correct the insufficiencies that we noted in our health system," he said in a speech on national television.

But he also stressed that the tragic consequences of the freak weather should serve as a reminder of the important social obligation France had towards the most fragile members of its population.

"Our society must become more responsive and attentive to others, to their problems, their suffering and their vulnerability," he warned. "These dramas again shed light on the solitude of many aged or handicapped citizens."

It was not clear last night whether his speech would do much to quell the anger still simmering within the health service, the opposition ranks of parliament and the general public. His focus on collective responsibility appeared to irritate those who have called on the government to face up to its own failures and stop blaming social trends, such as the practice of leaving elderly relatives behind during the holiday season.

Francois Hollande, leader of the Socialist party, said Chirac's "belated compassion cannot exonerate the government from its responsibility."

A survey published yesterday showed that 51 percent of the population felt the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin could have handled the crisis better.

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