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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August, 2003, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Chirac promises health changes
Coffins at a funeral
Some priests are being re-assigned from wedding to funeral duties
French President Jacques Chirac has promised changes to the country's health system after a summer heatwave caused thousands of deaths.

"Everything will be done to correct the insufficiencies that we noted in our health system," he said in a live televised address to the nation.

It was his first public statement on the crisis in which - as a government minister acknowledged on Thursday - 10,000 people may have died.

Mr Chirac described the heatwave, which brought temperatures of more than 40 C (104 Fahrenheit) in the first two weeks of August, as "exceptional".

Many fragile people died in their homes
Jacques Chirac
Most government ministers were on holiday at the time, and the cabinet has been severely criticised for doing too little too late in response.

Mr Chirac himself has also been condemned for failing to cut short his three-week holiday in Quebec.

"Many fragile people died alone in their homes," Mr Chirac said.

"To avoid these tragedies in the future, our prevention, surveillance and alert system will be reviewed so as to ensure greater effectiveness," he said.

He added that extra funding would be made available.

Mr Chirac was speaking after a cabinet meeting where he asked ministers to give detailed accounts of effects of the heatwave.

Priests under pressure

The minister for the elderly, Hubert Falco, said after the meeting that "most probably" some 10,000 people had died - a figure first put forward by the country's leading undertakers' organisation on Wednesday.

The Chiracs were a long way away - in Canada, it was raining
Le Figaro
Correspondents say France, which is ranked best in the world for its health care system, has been shocked by the scale of the tragedy.

Priests have been struggling to cope with the burden of burials, with some in the Paris region re-assigned from weddings to funeral duty.

Jean-Francois Mattei
Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei refused to say if he would quit
The AFP news agency says that in one district near Paris, Essonne, a priest had to bury two unrelated people during the same funeral ceremony.

On Monday Surgeon-General Lucien Abenheim resigned after facing criticism for failing to raise the alarm quickly enough.

Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei remained silent when journalists asked him after Thursday's cabinet meeting whether he too would quit.

European doubts

Other European countries, which also suffered from the heatwave, have issued less dramatic death tolls.

  • The Spanish revised its estimate upwards from 46 to 100 on Wednesday, but unofficial reports say the true figure could be closer to 1,000. The government was reported on Thursday to have ordered a comprehensive study on how heat affects death rates.
  • A report by Portugal's Health Ministry sugests that 1,300 more people died in Portugal in the first two weeks of August than in the same period in 2002. It said emergency measures introduced after a 1981 heatwave, in which 1,900 people died, had helped to reduce casualties.
  • In Italy, the Repubblica newspaper has reported that there were at least 2,000 more deaths in the country than in the same period last year
  • In Germany meteorologists said several hundred deaths were likely to be attributable to the heat despite an official figure of just 17

Temperatures in most countries have now subsided, but drought is continuing to beset farmers and some forest fires have continued to burn.


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Jeremy Bowen
"The waiting lists for funerals range from eight days to three weeks"



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