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Heat toll — 11,435 — stirs outrage in France

Government is accused of acting too slowly to help

SHARE Heat toll — 11,435 — stirs outrage in France

PARIS — France's first comprehensive tally of the searing heat wave stirred fresh outrage Friday when the government revealed that an alarming 11,435 people had died — far beyond its initial estimates.

The death toll — some 4,000 more than died in traffic accidents in France all last year — fueled accusations that the center-right government reacted too slowly. Many victims were elderly, dying alone at home or in overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes.

"It's unacceptable that in our era, so many elderly people died in such conditions," Communist lawmaker Alain Bocquet said.

Other European governments have estimated hundreds of deaths, but none on France's scale. French critics have blamed understaffing at hospitals and retirement homes, August vacationers who left elderly relatives unattended, government inaction and failures in France's once widely respected health system.

A deputy mayor of Paris, Yves Contassot, said the health minister should resign out "of respect for the families of the victims."

"We can't exonerate the government for its lack of activity," he told The Associated Press.

From Aug. 1-15, when much of Europe baked in record temperatures, France saw an average 762 more deaths each day than normal, according to the Health Ministry figures.

Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei, who is resisting calls from opposition lawmakers to resign, released the toll in a statement and called it "provisional."

He did not attribute the deaths directly to heat, although he noted that "the human drama linked to the heat wave hit the weakest people in our society."

But Gilles Brucker, director of the Health Surveillance Institute, which calculated the toll for Mattei's ministry, said heat was clearly to blame.

France normally could have expected 20,630 deaths in the first half of August, but this year recorded 32,065, Brucker said in an interview with Associated Press Television News.

"The excess mortality — a figure of 11,435 deaths — is on the face of it attributable to heat," he said. "No other phenomenon can explain these excess deaths."

The figures Friday far outstripped Mattei's initial estimates of 1,500-3,000 deaths. France's largest undertaker later estimated some 10,000 people died; government officials at first said that could be right, but later suggested the number could be inflated.

Patrick Pelloux, a doctor who first raised the alarm that people were dying while the government was downplaying the crisis, said the fresh toll is "motivation for understanding why our system, which we believed to be the best in the world, suffered a monstrous glitch."

But the heat in France was particularly relentless, with record day and nighttime temperatures that robbed people of chances to cool off. The widespread lack of air conditioning and the fact that few people in usually temperate cities like Paris are accustomed to such extremes made things worse.

From Aug. 5-13, the mercury did not dip below 73 degrees Fahrenheit at night in Paris. After scorching days, "that exhausted people," weatherwoman Corinne Van Peteghem said in a telephone interview.

In contrast, London had night temperatures of 66-68 degrees, Brussels had 61-63 degrees and Madrid had 63-70 degrees.

In Lisbon, Portugal, the mercury topped 81 degrees some nights, said Van Peteghem, of weather service Meteo France. The Portuguese government initially estimated that 1,300 people died, but now says it expects a toll of below 1,000. The Netherlands estimated 500-1,000 deaths.

In Britain, there were 907 more deaths registered during the week ending Aug. 15 compared to the average over the previous five years, the Office for National Statistics said. But the Department of Health said there was no way of knowing if heat caused the spike, though it was "fair to assume" that some deaths resulted from high temperatures.

The French Health Ministry says some victims succumbed to heat stroke, while others were already ill and pushed beyond their limits by the heat. Brucker said a study of 2,400 heat victims found 81 percent were older than 75 years old.

"Heat kills, but it doesn't kill everybody," he said. "It kills the vulnerable, the oldest, isolated people, those with illness, those taking medicines."

World Health Organization climate change expert, Carlos Corvalan, said experts must draw lessons from France's woes to prevent deaths in future heat waves, which could become more frequent and intense because of global warming.

"This is something that we may end up having to live with," he said.

The heat was compounded by fires that tore through southern France this summer, destroying tens of thousands of acres of vegetation.

French authorities have arrested 34 people — including 11 minors — suspected of setting some of the fires, the Justice Ministry said Friday.