France reaches out to its elderly

15,000 heatwave deaths this summer spur Paris to fund care for the aged by forgoing a public holiday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The memory of 15,000 dead pensioners hung heavily over French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin Thursday, as he announced a raft of measures to improve the lives of the elderly in the wake of last summer's deadly heatwave.

Most controversially, he struck one of France's cherished public holidays from the official calendar, calling on citizens to work an extra day to raise the money needed to fund the new programs.

"We are asking the French for a personal commitment through their work," said Mr. Raffarin, declaring the former Pentecost holiday "a day of solidarity and fraternity."

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The move comes as a parliamentary commission continues to investigate how 14,800 old people died in France last August as a result of unusually high temperatures, when the continent-wide heatwave claimed far fewer victims in neighboring countries.

That commission heard Wednesday from an emergency worker that the Paris fire brigade - which answers first aid calls as well as fire alerts - was ordered by the capital's police chief not to give out 'alarmist' figures that would have revealed in early August that old people were dying of heat-related causes in extraordinary numbers.

The monthlong "murderous" heatwave, Raffarin said, "revealed we have a duty of action, because we had fallen behind."

An official study found that 14,800 more people than usual died in August, almost all of them elderly and many of them living alone. The scandal shocked the French, who are proud of their state-run health and social security services.

The programs unveiled Thursday, which must be approved by parliament, will cost 9 billion euro ($10 billion) over the next four years, Raffarin said, and benefit both old people and the handicapped. They will be financed by a special 0.3 percent levy on all businesses, estimated as the value of a day's work, so that workers will give their labor for a day, and employers will donate their profits.

From 2005, public sector workers will lose the Pentecost Monday holiday in June, traditionally an opportunity to take an early-summer long weekend.

Private sector firms and unions will negotiate which public holiday, or other non-working day, they will do without. Since France moved to a 35-hour workweek, most people here enjoy 12 extra days off a year, on top of the existing 12 public holidays and regular vacation time, which averages about a month.

A guilt trip for vacationers?

Opposition politicians have condemned the plan since it was first mooted some months ago. Marc Blondel, leader of the left wing 'Workers' Force' union, said it "plays on people's guilt, attempting to make scapegoats out of those Frenchmen who were on holiday while their parents were suffering."

But the Prime Minister insisted that since the government did not want to worsen the already ballooning budget deficit, nor raise taxes, the only way to fund the measures was to make the money by working for it.

The government plans to boost provision of nursing care at home, increase the number of day care places in homes for the elderly, hire 15,000 caregivers in retirement homes, and build 200 new such homes to house an additional 10,000 elderly.

"This improves the resource situation a bit, but there are other long-term problems the government has not addressed," said Eugène Pinsault, head of a network of rural clubs for the elderly, who are sometimes referred to here as personnes du troisième age, or people of the third age.

Doctors, nurses, and air-conditioning

"One of the problems this summer was the dreadful lack of doctors and nurses in the countryside, and it will take years to correct that, given how long it takes to train doctors."

The new provisions also call for every home for the elderly to have at least one air-conditioned room by 2007. During the heatwave, temperatures in some parts of France, where air-conditioning is rare, soared into the 100s F.

Though the parliamentary commission is still exploring the detailed reasons behind this summer's catastrophe, some activists point to changing social realities, as family ties weaken.

"The French system [of care for the elderly] does not rest on family solidarity as it does to a greater extent in southern Europe...but nor do the authorities take complete care of dependent people as they do in Scandinavia," says Catherine Daurele, an official with AGE, a group that lobbies for the elderly at European Union headquarters in Brussels. "That leaves a hole into which the more isolated or poorer dependent people can fall."

Though France suffered most dramatically from the heatwave, other European countries have also been slow to develop policies to help people who lose their autonomy in their old age, says Ms. Daurele, even as their numbers grow with lengthening life expectancy.

Most European governments have so far dealt only with the most pressing financial aspect of ageing populations - the need to make pensions systems less generous so as to keep them afloat.

"One of the great challenges now is to take care of elderly dependent people," 90 percent of whom live at home, says Daurele.

"What happened last summer was like an electric shock to our politicians, but I am still afraid for the future," adds Mr. Pinsault.

"It is going to take a long time to correct policies born of a feeling that ageing was not a major priority."

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