PARIS, Nov 25 (AFP) – Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei on Tuesday defended his actions during an August heatwave that killed nearly 15,000 people in France by blaming the disaster on a multiplication of errors rather than any individuals under his authority.
The hot weather was “a natural catastrophe deepened by a structural crisis,” he told a parliamentary commission of inquiry.
“When so many errors of evaluation occur, it shouldn’t be individuals who are blamed but systems,” he said.
Mattei added that he personally “did not have the feeling of having made a mistake” during the disaster.
The parliamentary panel was investigating why Mattei and other ministers – all of whom were taking their summer vacations when the two-week heatwave struck – appeared to have managed a tardy and insufficient response, even as it became clear that thousands of mostly elderly French people were dying.
After initially minimising the number of dead, Mattei end his subordinates eventually confirmed figures from hospitals and undertakers that showed the country had suffered one of its worst natural disasters in modern history.
An official count finally said 14,802 people died from the August 2-14 heatwave, many of them elderly people living alone or in retirement homes who succumbed to the temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and above.
Authorities belatedly provided refrigerated trucks to cope with the overflow from morgues, and a national emergency plan which boosted hospital facilities and staffing was only declared at the end of the heatwave.
President Jacques Chirac, who continued his vacation in Canada during the disaster, admitted there were “shortcomings” that needed to be addressed when he returned to Paris.
But he and his ministers have also sought to shift the blame to families abandoning elderly relatives and the 35-hour workweek imposed by the previous Socialist government which they said left hospitals with minimal staff.
A proposal by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to cut Pentecost from the list of public holidays to pay for better old-age care has met a lukewarm public response and hostility from unions.
Up to now, only one official – Lucien Abenheim, then the country’s surgeon general – has resigned over the disaster. Mattei, though severely criticised, has kept his job.
Subject: French news