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Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Some Interesting First-Hand Comments From France About The Recent Death-Wave, and the Buggy Response

From Francis Turner, an Englishman living on the French Riviera, the following comment has arrived that helps to illuminate a seamy side of the astonishing wave of deaths --- 12,000 (the equivalent of 60,000 here) --- that overcame defenseless French elderly who languished in 110 degree weather in stifling apartments or in understaffed hospitals without air-conditioning as the French elite and others bounced and bounded about on the Riviera or in tony mountain retreats or, in the case of President Jacques Chirac, for weeks in Canada . . . where, according to French reports of late, he probably had a facial uplift.

What follows is Mr. Turner's comments, then the buggy response.

The Washington Post article by Gene Weingarten on US and French stereotypes of one another is indeed hilarious, and your refresh of recent French history most excellent. As an Englishman living on the Côte d'Azur I am frequently amused by the "sound and fury signifying nothing" that makes up most of French politics. On all this, your article was right on the money.

However I think I should point out that a large part of the reason why so many people died in the heat wave was due to the lack of filial attention by the French general public themselves. It is true that the government could (and should) have issued more warnings about the forecast heatwave and could have forced more doctors and nurses to take their vacation at a different time of the year, but that is by no means the whole story. Many French families buggered off on their congées (vacs) leaving their aged and infirm relatives behind and utterly failed to take any responsibility for their well-being. Indeed there were numerous stories of families being unreachable by hospital who wished to report the death of relatives as well as those cheerful stories of the dead being discovered by the family on its return home and/or the smell of decomposition annoying the neighbours. Very few of the casualties suffered from much more than heatstroke and dehydration, both of which are easy to cure by lying in bed and drinking water. Doctors and nurses are not exactly necessary nor, though it would shock the French pharmacists that there are pills they can dispense that are more advanced that some vitamins and mineral salts. However what they do need is a bit of care and attention such as having someone go shopping for them and remind them to drink etc. Admitting this would unfortunately require the French to admit that the government cannot solve all problems and that individuals should take some personal responsibility for their nearest and dearest



These are stimulating comments, Mr. Turner: thanks for sending them to us.

As it happens, Nancy and I record French news daily --- the deuxieme chaine, which reaches Santa Barbara on the international channel around 6:00 --- and watch it later while we're making dinner. On the whole, it did a creditable job of reporting on the horrible wave of deaths, except in one key respect: it didn't refer at any time save in passing, with little or no information, as to what was going on in other countries experiencing the same heat wave. The reason for the neglect? You can only speculate of course, but most likely due --- given what we know about French state-owned TV and radio ---- to orders from on high. France, after all, remains the most statist country in West Europe, run by a coterie of elite civil servants (most of the Ministers too are from ENA, the feeder grande-ecole here) . . . with an old boy's network that makes the former English establishment of Oxbbridge types look amateurishly bumbling: like so many Anglo-Saxon versions of Inspector Closeau as played by Peter Sellers in that series of hilariously memorable films he did in the 1970s and 1980s --- and hence only a phone call from a Minister's office to the heads of the TV and radio networks no doubt a daily affair. "Oui, Jean: c'est strictement interdit de mentionner le minister aujoud'hui . . . ou demain. Tu comprends, mon vieux?"

All the easier to do, of course, because these are state-owned networks anyway. And Jean naturally understands. Otherwise, he'd be out on his derriere if he should balk at the "request."


Still, despite this lapse, the terrible callous neglect by thousands of French families of their elderly trapped in stifling urban apartments where the trapped heat might have climbed to 110 degree Fahrenheit or so --- or in crowded hospital wards with no air conditioning and badly understaffed doctors and nurses as most were off on vacation --- did come across in the deuxieme chaine's reporting by late August and early September . . . the more so because the embarrassed government, whose heads continued to cavort in Canada or on the Riviera, seemed determined to blame it all on the families, and hence exculpate official governmental figures and policies.

The reality? Short of a thorough investigation, we have to speculate. On the face of it, though, both are to blame: the health system, social services, understaffed hospitals, no air-conditioning on one hand, and on the other families who wouldn't take care of their older parents.

Note though.

Some commentators here in the states say the death-wave reflects what happens in a welfare state system, where family responsibilities sag as people, losing their initiative and sense of personal responsibility for things, come to depend on the state and administrative personnel for their well being. Well, maybe so. But how much? In economics, a Nanny-state and regulations galore and administrators poking into all sides of life with official power may help explain a lack of enthusiasm in France and the rest of the EU Continental countries (with some variation) for difficult structural and policy change --- and for that matter the obstacles to entrepreneurial start-up firms, essentially the only effective way to implement radically restructuring technologies on one side that threaten the corporate status quo, and on the other just humdrum service firms that create millions of jobs. (Most jobs by far in this country are created by small firms; and about 1 out of 11 Americans creates a start-up each year. In Britain, the figure is 1/33 and in France much lower yet.) Still, in this case -- the responsbility of the health system as a culprit --- it's worth noting that Scandinavia, Holland, Germany, and Britain, all with statist systems, didn't experience the same sort of horrible deaths through neglect that marred the French system . . . and apparently Italy's too. (Spain had trouble as well). Some of the differences between the Protestant Northern countries (and Switzerland and Germany) and the Latin countries hre may be cultural; some of it different kinds of expenditures on staffing and air-conditioning. I can't say for sure, only guess.


But note: the US health system --- which has top-flight doctors and nurses and does insure through private and public means about 85% of the population --- is no paragon either, though apparently (as even the deuxieme chaine noted one night) our social services are far better organized to deal with heat waves and other climatic and social disasters that parallel the terrible month of August in France.

One way or another, to continue on this track briefly, the US has to find ways to extend coverage to low-wage workers (the elderly and the poor on welfare do get public support, and hospitals are by law ordered to treat anyone showing up irrespective of insurance coverage). Simultaneously, the shift to the power and wealth of medical insurance companies the last decade only stemmed the rising costs of medical treatment here for a few years. Since 1999, the costs have been rising in double figures annually. What we need here is a better mix of private and public insurance schemes, along with a continued readiness of all our social services for disaster, whether caused by nature or terrorism or some accidental failure in urban infrastructures.


Thanks again for the comments. For all the regrettable changes in French life since WWII, I always myself enjoyed living in France --- more so even than in Britain, despite my respect for British law and the political system and its general honesty; and were Nancy and I to live for years again in the EU, we'd choose it or Italy. Life's just more pleasant there. Just to clarify briefly: whatever advantages in curbing corruption and nepotism and personal irresponsibility the northern Protestant countries have, the Latin countries, at least the two I mentioned, seem to produce a much more congenial form of life, aesthetically and in cuisine and a slower pace. In saying this, we're aware: that's how the elites and affluent live or foreign visitors like ourselves --- and maybe you Mr. Turner. For the average hard-working French and Italian family, struggling daily with urban congestion, polluted cities (Paris much worse than Houston, Texas), long commutes, and a hectic existence: increasingly too, with a wave of violent crime worse than in the US by far as earlier buggy prof articles have shown, using international statistics here --- life, on the other hand, seems to have lost a lot of its traditional pleasure. Alas.

-- Michael, The Buggy Prof