France takes steps to avoid repeat of deadly 2003 heat wave

Crisitna Quicler, AFP

As temperatures continue to soar across France, government and health officials have implemented measures they hope will avoid a repeat of the infamous 2003 heat wave that caused thousands of deaths throughout the country.


France's national weather service on Wednesday put 47 regions on Orange Alert after several cities hit record-high temperatures the previous day. The agency warned of an “enduring heat wave of significant intensity requiring particular vigilance” across the country.

Paris residents and tourists saw thermometers rise to 34.2°C (93.6°F) on Tuesday and may have to cope with oppressive 39°C (102°F) heat on Wednesday. The wine-producing regions of Champagne and Burgundy were braced for highs of 40°C, with temperatures unlikely to dip below 30°C across France until the weekend.

France has adopted strict heat wave guidelines since the summer of 2003, when between 15,000 and 19,000 people died as a result of extreme temperatures – many of them isolated elderly citizens. The government at the time came under virulent criticism for neglecting the problem, with many ministers abroad on holidays while thousands agonised.

France’s alert system has since won plaudits from the UN, which has recommended that other countries refer to the European nation as a model for preventing such disasters.

While the alert system has proven effective in preventing health complications, especially among vulnerable members of the population, it cannot eliminate all the side effects of the blistering heat, such as overburdened electricity grids and pollution peaks.

Below is a list of heat wave-related problems France is already dealing with or will likely face as the mercury rises.

  • Electric grids

Around one million homes went dark on Tuesday night over large swaths of France’s Atlantic coast after fires in at least three electric power stations cut electricity to many towns and forced the RTE electric grid authorities to temporarily turn off service to other customers. The agency blamed malfunctions on unusually high demand from household appliances, and an abrupt change in temperature. It said it would fully restore service by Wednesday afternoon, but warned power outages could strike again in the coming days.

  • Pollution

The burden of extreme heat has been compounded by suffocating pollution in the French capital. Ozone levels in Paris have risen sharply as a result of the abundant sunlight interacting with automobile exhaust fumes and relatively little wind. The Paris police prefecture asked motorists to reduce their speed, while the mayor’s office made street parking free and called on residents to use public transport as much as possible. City Hall said it was discussing the idea of making the bike-sharing Velib’ and auto-sharing Autolib’ services free for the duration of the heat wave.

  • Transport

The additional commuters may nevertheless find themselves bogged down on the public transport network. France’s national and city train systems regularly struggle with significant delays during the summer months due to the extreme heat that makes the metal railway tracks expand and power cables slightly deform. Trains are forced to move at a slower pace to avoid accidents, and sometimes experience power cuts, sparking travel nightmares for commuters and tourists alike. The national SNCF railway company has said it is prepared to deploy extra staff to quickly resolve technical problems, and in many cases will distribute water bottles to customers stuck on trains between two stations.

  • Hospitals

In recent years France has also seen emergency rooms strained to capacity amid heat waves. “We aim to have the least amount of people going to hospital” French Health Minister Marisol Touraine told France Inter radio on Wednesday morning, insisting people needed to be better informed to avoid sun and heat strokes and should rely more heavily on family doctors. A toll-free number (0 800 06 66 66, from 9am to 7pm) has been activated to help guide the public. Local governments are also charged with keeping a database of elderly residents, with regular phone calls made on request to check up on them.

  • Schools

France’s vast educational system is also on alert as the ministry issued a long list of guidelines for school principals. They range from simple rules, like using curtains and shutters on windows directly exposed to sunlight, to the more complex, like checking refrigeration equipment in school lunchrooms to avoid spoiled food. Teachers have been told to limit outdoor sport activities and avoid school trips to places where children will be exposed to sunlight for a prolonged period.

  • Outdoor workers

Minister Touraine also asked businesses to take preventative measures during the heat wave to ensure the wellbeing of employees, especially those working outdoors. She urged them to “reschedule the work day whenever possible, because it is very hard to work outdoors.” French law says employers must take “all the necessary measures to protect the health” of workers and to adapt its activity to “changing circumstances”, including extreme weather.

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