The heat wave that fried Europe for three weeks this summer could not have come at a worse time for Frenchmen with heart trouble, emphysema, asthma, and other illnesses exacerbated by heat.
Temperatures soared just as millions of French citizens, including hospital workers, headed for the beaches to take their traditional month-long August holiday.
As a result, finding a hospital bed was nearly impossible, and understaffed emergency rooms were overwhelmed with sick, frail, and elderly patients in need of care.
Those who did manage to get into the hospital weren't much better off. French hospitals are forbidden by law from having air conditioning out of fear the ventilation systems will spread disease.
The result: The French Health Ministry claims that the prolonged heat wave has claimed as many as 3,000 lives over the last three weeks, calling it "a genuine epidemic."
Temperatures topped 104 degrees in Paris, where August temperatures usually average 75 degrees. The temperatures have moderated somewhat, but if the thermostat heats up again, the government may have to order hospital staffers back to work – for their treacherous 35-hour week.
The heat wave puts a spotlight on much that is wrong with the French economy, including short government-mandated work weeks, extraordinarily generous and expensive benefits, and political resistance to new technologies.
Jean-Francois Cope, a spokesman for the French government, blamed the previous Socialist government for the 35-hour week that has left French hospitals with insurmountable problems. "This kind of heat wave, at a time of year when staffing levels are low, can only have dramatic consequences,'' he said.
The French imposed a 35-hour work week in an attempt to create more jobs. The goal was to spread the available work to more people – but without a commensurate cut in pay. The result has been higher prices for French goods and services with continued high unemployment of 9.5 percent.
French workers – like their European partners – have lobbied for and obtained some of the most generous employment benefits in the world, including mandated vacation of at least five weeks a year. In the U.S., most workers get just two weeks.
And French unemployment benefits can be even more generous. Jobless benefits can be available for up to four years in France and often include housing subsidies large enough to cover a person's rent, providing little incentive for laid off workers to search for new jobs. Those who continue to work pay higher and higher taxes to support those who don't.
Further, centralized, bureaucratic decision-making about new technologies is prevalent throughout the French economy and its health care system, most obviously in government delaying or denying new medical technologies and pharmaceuticals to its citizens.
Now we learn that the health care system is micromanaged by the government, even to the point of determining whether there can be air conditioning in hospitals.
Sophisticated ventilation systems are widely available and in use in the U.S. that can filter contaminants out of the air. The government may not want to spend the money to air condition its hospitals, but it should recognize that safe new technologies exist.
However, once a law like this gets on the books, a hospital board can't vote to install cooling systems, as they could in the U.S. Instead in France, it literally takes an act of Parliament.
Such resistance to new technologies – partly because of fear and partly out of protection of the status quo – will continue to exacerbate the country's economic problems.
It's too early to tell if the death toll in France exceeded rates elsewhere in Europe. Those figures aren't yet available, with the Germans and Italians saying such information is too difficult to gather because heat may be just one factor contributing to a person's death.
The French are taking solace, however, in one bit of good news: Winemakers say 2003 has the potential to be a blue ribbon vintage year because of a perfect combination so far of heat and rain.
Grace–Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a not–for–profit research organization that focuses on health reform. She can be reached at P.O. Box 19080, Alexandria, VA 22320 or at firstname.lastname@example.org