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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 August, 2003, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Corpses prompt French soul searching
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Refrigerated mortuary lorries in Paris
Some of the dead are being stored in lorries
Those shifting makeshift coffins into temporary morgues in Paris wear masks to protect them from the smell of the bodies of the elderly victims of France's heatwave.

These people may have died days - even weeks - ago, but no-one has been to collect their bodies and lay them to rest in a family ceremony.

Since it emerged that as many as 10,000 people died as a result of France's extreme summer temperatures, the government has come under heavy fire for what some observers see as its failure to prepare for the foreseeable consequences of such heat.

It's not up to the state to take care of our elderly. It's up to us
Le Figaro
But as bodies remain unclaimed, politicians are seeking to turn the tables, raising some uncomfortable questions about the whereabouts of the deceased's nearest and dearest.

"Is it normal that last night there were 300 people who hadn't been buried because the family had not turned up to claim the body. Is that the government's fault?" demanded the state secretary for the elderly, Hubert Falco.

"There are 300 families who have not yet realised that they have a granny or a mother who is dead."


This table-turning exercise has met some success, with a series of thought-provoking headlines and editorials in the nation's press.

"We're all guilty," declared the front-page headline of Tuesday's popular daily Le Parisien, while in a commentary entitled "French barbarity", the right-wing Le Figaro noted that: "It's not up to the state to take care of our elderly. It's up to us."

Opinion still varies widely as to who is responsible for the welfare of the lone elderly, and the latest opinion polls indicate that public fury with the French Government is still raging.

We shouldn't be criminalising the family, who in the majority of cases have not abandoned their elderly
Françoise Forette
Society for Geriatrics and Gerontology

That so many old people appear to have been left alone without any visits or telephone contact during the first few weeks of this month is in part explained by the fact that it is August, when France shuts down and everyone heads south on holiday.

But experts also point to a more fundamental change in French society, where there has been a marked drop in the number of elderly people living with the younger generation.

"France, like other industrialised countries, has seen a shift in the way the family works," says Jerome Lejeune of The Little Brothers of the Poor, which assists the aged.

"At one level, the sense of duty towards the elderly has diminished. But also there are the practicalities of the situation - people are much more mobile than before, and may have found jobs far away from the parental home."

The changing status of women is also believed to have had an impact on care for the elderly.

Whereas daughters and wives once stayed at home to clean, cook and care for husbands, children and ageing parents, modern French women expect a life outside the home.

Live forever

Not everyone, however, is keen on blaming the children.

"I do not believe that society is not interested in what happens to the elderly. Quite simply, it is just not yet a priority for our elected representatives," Françoise Forette, the president of the Society for Geriatrics and Gerontology, told Le Figaro.

"We shouldn't be criminalising the family, who in most cases have not abandoned their elderly."

Unmarked heatwave victims' graves at Thiais cemetery, south of Paris
Unclaimed victims are being buried in unmarked graves
"Those who are on their own are often widows or don't have children."

For the number of isolated elderly highlights the changing demographics of much of the industrialised world.

Medical advances and improved diets have increased life expectancy, while the birth rate is in overall decline.

The increasingly skewed proportion of young people to old has long been recognised as having an impact on pensions - a problem France is currently seeking to tackle.

But as the corpses in the morgue indicate, it may be more than just pensions which suffer.

The BBC's Allan Little
"Up to 500 bodies are yet to be claimed"

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