Holidays and Heat Waves: Ten Years After France’s Deadly “Canicule” of 2003

by / Sunday, 21 July 2013 / Published in Book Excerpt, France

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This summer marks the 10th anniversary of an event the French would rather forget, but are condemned to remember: the deadly heat wave of 2003. Some 15,000 people, most of them elderly, perished in the sweltering heat due to neglect by families and a dysfunctional French health system. In my book Home Again in Paris I briefly assess the tragedy of 2003 and the reasons for it — a timely issue as France enters another “canicule” heat wave this week. The book extract is below.

Holidays are a sort of national religion in the Fifth Republic. The French enjoy a staggering number of days off for various fetes and vacations.

Most years, the French get eleven bank holidays – or jours fériés – most of them marking Catholic rites (Pâques, Ascension, Pentecôte, Assomption). That number is actually deceptive because most bank holidays usually come with one or two extra days off, known as ponts, or bridge days. If a bank holiday falls, say, on a Thursday, the whole country takes the Friday off too.

French employers don’t even consider it delinquent. They have assimilated all the ponts into their productivity calculations. During May, there are so many bank holidays that it’s more or less understood that nobody works that month. By another tacit understanding, the entire country more or less shuts down between May and September. If you have a serious matter to deal with at the office, you’d better get it wrapped up before early May. If not, don’t expect a decision until after the rentrée in early September. Foreigners doing business with the French between June and September learn this lesson to their immense frustration.

The French are usually defensive when you ask them about all sick days and holidays they take – especially when the question is put by an Anglo-Saxon. Most stick to the standard line that they get five weeks holidays.

I finally got the truth from a former student, Guillaume Montaigné, who’d been in one of my Sciences Po classes. One of the great advantages of being a university professor is the satisfaction of following your students as they go on to pursue fascinating careers. Guillaume, a well-mannered young man with sandy blonde hair and always dressed in a crisp shirt and smart jacket, was one of my favourite ex-students. He was now working in media relations at the Musée d’Orsay. As a gesture of gratitude to his favourite professor, Guillaume extended me an open invitation to privately visit the Musée d’Orsay on any Monday when it’s closed to the public. Needless to say, I have taken him up on this generous offer a few times for private viewings of Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe”, Caillebotte’s “Les Raboteurs de parquet”, Renoir’s “Bal du Moulin de la Galette”, Van Gogh self-portraits and Whistler’s Mother.

In the week following one of my private visits to the museum, I usually invite Guillaume to lunch at one of the nearby restaurants just up the road from the famous Musée d’Orsay. It was during one of these lunches that I asked him for the truth: how many weeks of holidays do French employees take every year?

He smiled. “Sometimes nine or ten – even more,” he said. “That doesn’t count all the ponts and other days off here and there.”

If the French feel over-stressed at work, there is at least the happy prospect of early retirement. While in Anglo-American countries most people demand the right to work longer, and to not be pushed out the door at age sixty-five, in France entitlement to an early retirement at age sixty is considered sacrosanct. This may explain why the French have a bizarre definition for the word “senior” – a term borrowed from English to designate employees past their prime.

For the French a “senior” is someone who has attained the grand age of forty-five. Yes, forty-five.

Once you hit forty-five in France you are regarded at the office as over the hill and your chances of advancement are severely limited. That’s if you are lucky enough to have a job. If you are unemployed and looking for work past age forty-five, your chances are close to zero. The blame for this appalling treatment of middle-aged workers in France is usually attributed to the country’s overly rigid office culture with its insistence on conformity. French employers prefer to hire young people who are regarded as more malleable and easily trained to conform to expectations of a rigid corporate culture. Most of all, they can be hired on the cheap. Older workers in France are set in their ways and more expensive. So they are left at the side of the road, like abandoned pets in July and August, left to fend for themselves, brutally cut off from an environment they had once considered safe.

In the summer of 2003, a shocking tragedy shamed the French into facing the consequences of their national religion of long holidays. In early August the country was hit by one of the severest heat waves in memory. Temperatures throughout France soared to more than 40 degrees centigrade – or nearly 105 fahrenheit. Most of the French were away on holidays, especially the aoûtiens who had left for the entire month of August.

While France’s sun-drenched beaches teamed with tourists, thousands of elderly people living alone in city flats started dying from dehydration and heat stroke. Concerned neighbours began sounding the alarm. But the death toll kept rising, reaching into the thousands. France’s emergency health services quickly realised that they could not cope. The French government was paralysed and did nothing. Bureaucrats, too, were away on holiday. By the middle of August the death toll approached 15,000 – most of them elderly people living alone.

When news of the enormity of this tragedy hit, the French were shocked. How could this happen?

What happened was a convergence of cultural, political and institutional realities in French society that exposed a grave moral crisis.

First, most French homes didn’t have air conditioning. Air conditioning may be standard home equipment in America, but not in France. There is no AC in my Art Deco building in the 7th arrondissement. When it gets hot in the summer, I have fans blowing cool air onto my bed during the night, with Oscar and Leo lying next to me. Air conditioning could have saved the lives of the 15,000 elderly people who perished in the August heat wave of 2003.

Second, they would have survived, even without AC, if French bureaucrats running the health system had not been away on holidays and had taken quick action when the magnitude of the crisis was obvious.

Third, the elderly people who died that summer were also betrayed by their own families, many of whom were more interested in their vacations than in their elderly parents left behind in lonely isolation in small apartments. Many of the bodies went unclaimed for weeks and had to be buried in unmarked graves.

Facing moral outrage, President Jacques Chirac blamed French society as a whole, pointing to the lack of moral compassion and solidarity in France for the country’s elderly population. Following the tragedy, plans were put in place to ensure that it would never happen again.

For the 15,000 elderly people who died in the heat wave of 2003, it was too late.