Modern economic demands have eroded the basic French social structure to such an extent that the traditional vision of French society increasingly fails to reflect the reality of contemporary French family life.
Over 60,000 people died in the heat wave that overwhelmed southern Europe in August, 2003. This was a natural disaster of far greater proportions than, for example, Hurricane Katrina but its insidious nature meant that it was quickly forgotten by the press, and as the statistics from all the countries affected took several years to come in, the real scale of the event has not been properly measured outside the medical research community.
Over 14,800 extra deaths were recorded in France – that is, 14,800 more than the average for the same period in a normal year. In Paris, the mortality rate between August 1st and 20th, 2003 increased by 141% according to a study by the national French medical research institute, INSERM. All European countries suffered higher death tolls due to the very long hot summer but France and Italy (19,000 extra deaths) were by far the highest. The observations which follow may well apply to Italy as well, but for the purposes of this article, let’s just look at France’s situation.
As in other countries, old people had the highest mortality rates. For Paris (which was the hardest hit, despite holding only about 7.5% of the total French population), the INSERM study used statistical analysis to create a profile of the ‘typical’ victim: over 75 years old, female, living alone. This profile does not correspond to the usual statistics for a normal year.
Mostly, gross institutional failure was blamed: the impressively slow reaction by the French Health Ministry to the alarm bells sounded by emergency doctors as early as the beginning of June, inadequate hospital facilities, the appalling conditions in many retirement homes, the lack of government support programmes for old people living alone. Most of these factors, however, were to a greater or lesser extent, common to other European states which had lower numbers of additional deaths. So what could explain why France’s death toll was so high?
The French generally describe their culture as “Mediterranean”. Among other things, this means that the traditional social unit is the family, in its more extended sense. A great many French adults spend their week between their work and their children, and their weekends with their parents or their in-laws.
However, the increasing mobility of working populations everywhere has meant that grown-up children, who traditionally lived close to their ageing parents now live and work at greater and greater distances from both their parents, and also from their brothers and sisters. The conflicts generated by this, given that the older generations still expect to see their children regularly, are symptomatic of the way modern economic demands have eroded the basic French social structure to such an extent that this traditional vision of French society increasingly fails to reflect the reality of contemporary French family life.
The new, unacknowledged model is far closer to the Anglo-Saxon one of family members dispersed around the country, managing to get together at most two or three times a year for big family events, and the rest of the time keeping in touch by phone on a more or less regular basis.
The big differences between the new French reality and the Anglo-Saxon model are twofold.
Firstly, in Anglo-Saxon society, this loose family arrangement with children making their own lives in faraway places is an accepted model in most families, whereas in France it is not. Ageing parents put pressure on their busy adult children to shoulder their traditional responsibilities which are less and less achievable given the stresses of time, finances, distance and the needs of their own children. The result is that what used to be considered the normal “Mediterranean” relationship between adult children and their older parents has increasingly become a guilty burden on the children and a source of resentment and incomprehension on the part of their parents, as well as a ready arena for conflict between more and less “responsible” siblings. None of this is conducive to happy family get-togethers.
Secondly, as all humans require support systems, Anglo-Saxons have replaced family support with close friendships. The tradition of friendship between adults in France is not highly developed. Couples rarely have separate social lives. Most adolescent friendships either dissipate or disappear once the young adult finds their “life” partner and each embraces the other’s family. This is particularly true among French women. There is a competitive edge to their relationships with other women which makes close and supportive friendship difficult. However, like their counterparts in the rest of the world, French women generally outlive French men and it is most often the woman who finds herself alone at the end of her life, with the family dispersed and the husband gone.
The month of August in France is the height of the famous “vacances d’été”, when French families traditionally leave for the coast or the mountains to spend the summer with their children. So, in addition to the usual isolation of the old, there is the long period of family absence due to the summer holidays. Some of the bodies of people who died during the heat wave were not claimed for over 2 months after their arrival at the morgues. 57 unclaimed bodies were buried at the beginning of September.
A member of an old-folk’s community group in England was interviewed shortly after the news of the heatwave deaths of 2003. When asked his opinion on why there had been substantially fewer deaths in England, he suggested that the networks of old people in most parts of the country meant that people dropped in on one another and checked up on the most fragile members of the group, and that because of this solidarity, most older people were not left to manage on their own.
None of this describes the situation for old people in France, most particularly the majority living alone in big cities. Apart from their families, most of them have no support network.
The INSERM study also revealed that older “foreign” women had a lower death rate than average during the same period. The authors of the study ventured the hypothesis that ” foreign communities |may] display greater solidarity towards the elderly than the native French population “.
It appears far more probable that there will be repeat heatwaves of the ampltude of 2003 than that there will be a return to the “Mediterranean” family model in France. If a repeat of the 2003 catastrophe is to be avoided in the future, the meaning of the family needs rethinking, as does the reality of the modern French social unit, particularly in the light of the increasingly ageing French population. For the moment, the traditional model is in a process of disintegration and nothing has appeared to fill the vacuum it is leaving. The French solution of mass installation of air-conditioning units is typically pragmatic, but terribly inadequate.
*Tory McBride* has been a lawyer, a barmaid, a comedy producer, an importer,
and a teacher of international business subjects in French & English. She has lived in France since 1992.