Heng: The deaths caused by the 2003 heatwave in France prompted a national debate about care for vulnerable people

When thousands of older and disabled French people died in the 2003 heatwave, it was a national scandal. In Paris, many victims were older people living on their own, without support. In a country where 90 per cent of over-85s live independently, this single event generated a national discussion about attitudes and care for vulnerable people in French society.

The French government could have responded by diverting resources or raising taxes to improve facilities for vulnerable groups; instead, its idea was more radical. It declared an annual day of solidarity, from this year: a bank holiday would be sacrificed for “the elderly and the handicapped”, and all French workers were invited to donate their earnings for 16 May – estimated at £3bn – to a fund to improve facilities, mainly care for older people and accessibility for people with disabilities.

The then French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin called it “an appeal for fraternity among the French. It is an act of generosity by French society for itself, for its own future”. But the country’s Federation of Severely Disabled People, described it as “stigmatising for the old and handicapped”, and called for the money to be raised through general taxation.

Calling for a strike, trade unions said it was tantamount to forced labour, and opinion polls showed two-thirds of the population opposed the idea. The day itself was passed in confusion: most public sector employees were given 16 May off, as were half the workers in private industry, after the government agreed that they could work unpaid shifts on another date, or take time off from existing entitlements.

The French employers’ association called the government’s policy “economically incoherent”, and a top union official branded it “ham-fisted and hypocritical”.

Perhaps this was an attempt to manipulate national guilt, making up for chronic underfunding in social care, without having to raise taxes. Perhaps it was just too ambitious to link fund-raising to consciousness-raising on such a grand scale. I wonder how the idea would go down here.


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