“How hot it is … I am dying … melting … This is what you will hear on buses, trains and the streets all over France. Of course that was before the Canicule (French for heat wave) began running out of steam: after touching 45 degrees Celsius recently, temperatures in many French cities returned to the more salubrious mid-20 degrees to 30 degrees Celsius.
Comparisons with the year 2003 when 15,000 people died due to heat wave conditions, were premature largely because the authorities were ready. But the high temperatures (15 degrees Celsius above the seasonal norm), have also touched records over the Alps, putting at risk the permanent snow cover.
So France is getting familiar with heat wave conditions but the French don’t adapt well to the situation. So how do people cope? Not very different from India: They remain indoors, some take days off from work, others spend the day in parks (local authorities extended closing hours), drink as much liquids often as they can and as is increasingly the case now, order fans on the internet or rush to stores that stock them. One store in Paris was reported to have made a killing, selling 1000 fans in a single day. Other stores reported 400 per cent increase in demand for fans and air conditioners.
But if the days are bad, the nights are worse as temperatures don’t drop. Sleep is hard to come by particularly since homes in Europe are built to conserve heat (the continent has been known for mild summers and harsh winters). Less than 5 per cent of the French population has air conditioning at home. The end result is a tired and irritable people.
The government does “its best”, sending alerts on radio and TV and publishing warnings in the newspapers. Schools cancelled all outdoor physical activity, in fact a reported 4000 schools were shut all over the country, and even a national exam like the Brevet des Collèges, the equivalent of India’s Class 10 boards, was postponed. Construction companies started work early and finished early, and are now required by law to provide several litres of drinking water to each worker.
The real problem behind the heat wave is not the heat. It has revealed the lack of means and equipment for public services such as schools and hospitals where a situation of this kind has neither been anticipated nor planned for. A French deputy has shown great enthusiasm when it came to proposing a new law for schools, making it mandatory for them to fly the French and European flag in classrooms, as well as sing the national anthem.
However, French legislators seem to take much more time thinking over what has been asked for so many years by professionals in the educational field: fewer students per classroom, better, newer equipment for IT but also for basic needs. Often, teachers pay out of their own pocket to fund school projects. It takes ages to replace or repair broken or missing material. School buildings are not air-conditioned and most schools don’t even have a fan per classroom! But then, if they have the flag, how could they complain?
A man has been in the news these days: a father. His child is in a kindergarten near Paris with no air-conditioning, no fans, no shutters or blinds (which is the norm). The father knows just like everybody else (including the authorities), that a heat wave is imminent and decides to buy with his own money 10 fans, which he hands over to his child’s school, one fan per classroom. So far, so good. Then an inspector comes by and tells the school to return the fans because the rules require each and every item in a school to be validated beforehand by the school district academy! The rule stands even as teachers registered 40 degrees Celsius at 11 am in the classroom.
Speaking of hospitals, health professionals are on strike all over France, others on sick leave because of a burnout. All of this because public hospitals lack money, beds, staff, and are managed as if they were companies, aiming for profit rather than the patients’ care and concern. But Agnès Buzin, French Health Minister, has guaranteed they were ready to handle the heat wave. She even added a little piece of advice: employers must pass on to their employees the message that “when in June, going through a heat wave, it was unnecessary to dress as if they were in January…”
Alain Bruneel, a deputy in the French Communist Party, visited incognito the emergency services of a hospital in Douai (north of France). Behaving like a patient, he was astonished and angry at what he experienced, saying that the government had given up on public hospitals and the incredible people who dedicated their lives to help others, “Which is a shame when we know we have the money”, he pointed out.
Research by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact has warned that heat waves and other weather extremes are on the rise. “The hottest summers in Europe since AD 1500 all occurred since the last turn of the century, 2018, 2010, 2003, 2016, 2002. Monthly heat records all over the globe occur five times as often today as they do in a stable climate. The increase in heat extremes is just as predicted by climate science as a consequence of global warming caused by the increasing greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, oil and gas.”
Now here is the problem: We’re French and we are still arguing about whether climate change is a fact and which political party is right or wrong regarding climate change. People want a safe planet but don’t want to change the little things they could. And the media and government alike have not moved a bit from the idea that people are the cause of pollution, and therefore climate change: the public at large is made to feel guilty even when it is widely known that 70 per cent of pollution is the result of industrial activity! The conclusion here is simple: the French government refuses to take the bull by the horns and pass whatever legislation is needed even if it rubs big corporate houses the wrong way.
Paris has witnessed since last November, a major social upheaval (Les Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vests) which the government and media have tried to play down. It is still going on and evolving. They still protest every Saturday in Paris, in other cities, and in the countryside, demanding social equity—those with limited means are being asked to pay more and more while big companies and wealthy people get richer. But unlike what is presented in the media (as extremists of all kinds opposing the rise in oil prices), it is really about people who want to be heard precisely because they wish for a better world and a better future for their children: environment is a major issue and what the Yellow Vests are demanding is the government take a stand against pollution and global warming.
The protest started when the government announced that gas prices would rise to fund ecological transition. That ignited a wave of public discontent because of its big financial impact. Curiously, big companies that are the main source of pollution are not taxed for it, nor is aviation fuel taxed. The violence spread when it came out that the new tax would only partially fund the ecological transition programme.
French leaders are loud when it comes to speaking up on an international scene but when laws are adopted in France, they seem to accommodate the interests of big firms and lobbies whose behaviour are hardly environment-friendly. They make small moves to show they care about the planet but nothing consistent to fight global warming.
Even if only three people died in France because of the heat wave this time, in the end, French people must act in order to change the order or just get used to becoming summer roasts. But we all know this is not just a French concern, right?
(The author teaches French and is an occasional writer based in Lyon. Views are personal.)