"French capitalism kills 12,000 in heat wave. Paris blames 'mother nature'"

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Sep 12 23:17:38 MDT 2003


This incident, covered but not played up heavily in the US press,
shows thst the disintegration and destruction of what liberals today
call the social "safety net" (the degree of social security and health
care that has been won by working people) has been taking place in
Western Europe as well as the United States and Britain. This is
another social procewss that will not be reversed by getting Bush out
any more than it was reversed by getting Clinton in.

Although the health minister had to walk the plank over the slaughter
in (but not by) the heat wave, the ruling class is selling, as it does
here, the idea that handling such matters is a private and family, not
state and social, matter, and that family breakdown is the cause of
the deaths.
Fred Feldman


The Militant   Vol. 67/No. 32           September 22, 2003
French capitalism kills 12,000 during heat wave, Paris blames ‘mother
nature’


BY LAUREN HART

The French ruling class has seized on the deaths of at least 12,000
people, most of them retirees, during a heat wave in August to
cynically deflect blame from itself and the capitalist system, and
present the death toll instead as a natural disaster exacerbated by
declining family values. Paris has also used the occasion to push for
deeper attacks on the working class.

Government officials have accused the victims’ families of abandoning
their elders, in an attempt to direct the blame away from the state’s
responsibility for an understaffed health system and the lack of
government action to address the crisis. As if to add insult to
injury, the government has floated the idea of eliminating one of the
country’s 11 national holidays, supposedly to pay for improved care
for the elderly.

During the first half of August, France was hit by daily temperatures
of up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Increasing
numbers of people, especially elderly retirees, succumbed to
dehydration and hyperthermia. As medical personnel and undertakers
pointed to the mounting death toll, government officials took no
emergency measures and denied what was happening. Health Minister
Jean-Francois Mattei was shown on television August 11 at his vacation
home in southern France dismissing reports of the catastrophic death
rates, alongside footage of overwhelmed emergency rooms. According to
doctors, about 30 people usually die each day in the Paris area. With
the heat wave the daily toll jumped to about 180.

It was only on August 14 that Mattei and French prime minister
Jean-Pierre Raffarin met and announced some steps to increase hospital
staffing and open more beds.

The disaster came after several years of cutbacks in health care and
other services such as retirement homes, by both the current
conservative government and the previous Socialist Party-led regime.
Many small hospitals have been closed. Medical staffs estimate that a
10 percent increase in personnel is needed to provide proper care.

CNN quoted Katia Guiermet, an emergency room nurse at the Avicenne
hospital near Paris, describing the lack of basic materials to care
for those suffering from the heat. "We really do feel quite
desperate," she said August 14. "We don’t feel incompetent, but it’s
really difficult for people suffering from heat stroke when you don’t
have any ice" or air conditioning.

"We’ve been saying for quite a while that there aren’t enough workers
in retirement homes,"  said Luc Broussy, a spokesperson for the
Synerpa union, which organizes workers in these homes.

While patients were crammed into beds in hallways of facilities
without air conditioning, such as the Saint-Antoine hospital in Paris,
air-conditioned tents were set up to hold the bodies of the dead as
the morgues filled to capacity.

‘Abandoned old folks’? As the scope of the deaths began to emerge,
big-business politicians and pundits blamed "families for abandoning
their old folks as they took off to beaches and campgrounds” for the
long vacations, by U.S. standards, that many French workers get in
August. The media repeatedly stressed how many retirees in France live
alone and depend on younger relatives to help them out. But many of
those who died were actually living in retirement homes.

The mayor of the city of Amboise, Bernard Debre, blamed "young
generations that don’t want to take care of the elders."

Health Minister Mattei put forward the same line, saying the deaths
were a “"rutal revelation of a social fracture, of the solitude and
isolation of the aged."  Mattei defended the government’s actions as
adequate, saying, "I have nothing to hide," and rejected suggestions
that he should resign.

Much of the commentary on the issue in the media in Europe and North
America has revealed the reality and morality of big-business
prejudice against the elderly as people who have lived “too long” and
are a burden on the employers’ class until they die.

Commenting in the Financial Times August 31, for example, Dominique
Moisi, a senior adviser at the French Institute for International
Relations, stated that the death toll "has provoked an unprecedented
bout of national soul-searching." Today, Moisi wrote, the elderly are
“a burden and an obstacle to the cult of individual freedom that
dominates our lifestyle," showing a loss of "the spiritual guidance of
established religion and simple respect for family life." The author
went on to brag that, by contrast, "I have had the privilege of caring
for my parents in their slow departure from life, well into their
nineties."

Mattei and others quipped that about 400 bodies of those who died in
Paris that weren’t immediately claimed by relatives was evidence that
the problem was poor family values.  By early September, however, all
but 57 bodies— -- less than half of 1 percent of the total -- had been
claimed. French president Jacques Chirac attended a funeral for these
57 people September 3. An aide cynically said that the president
wanted "to show the solidarity of the entire nation with the isolated
people."

Cut holiday for ‘solidarity’
Chirac’s brand of solidarity is revealed by the plans he has asked the
government to prepare to supposedly improve services for the elderly.
What has been dubbed the "Aging and Solidarity" plan won’t be
officially proposed until October. But on August 27 the government
floated the idea that a key component would be eliminating an
as-yet-unspecified national holiday.

Hamlaoui Mekachera, secretary of state for war veterans, asserted that
taxes on the extra day’s work would go to finance care for the
elderly. But most important, he said, was the symbolic importance of
common "sacrifice" that this would register. "The gesture of
solidarity is more important than the financial gesture," he stated.

The secretary of state for the elderly, Hubert Falco, pointed to the
precedent of a similar take-back of a holiday in Germany in 1995. "It
would be, as is the case in Germany, a holiday that would be worked to
the advantage of national solidarity," he said.

While union officials said they would not accept eliminating a
holiday, Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, president of the bosses association
MEDEF, called the proposal "fantastic."  He expressed his enthusiasm
to Europe-1 radio, saying, "The idea that we can solve problems by
working more is a big first for our country."



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