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French may give up bank holiday to fund elderly care

By Jon Henley, The Guardian

 August 28, 2003

The French government, struggling with the aftermath of a deadly heatwave this month that killed up to 13,600 mainly elderly people, yesterday suggested cancelling a public holiday to fund better care for the aged.

The secretary of state for the elderly, Hubert Falco, said the idea was one of the possibilities being explored "to try to establish genuine solidarity in the nation. It would be a holiday on which people would work in the cause of national solidarity."

Mr Falco said the additional social security payments and taxes that the government would receive from an extra day's work could be used to set up and finance a special fund for the aged, as has been done in Germany. In a snap poll, 81% of respondents said yesterday that they approved of the plan.

The centre-right administration of prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has come under heavy public criticism for its handling of the two-week heatwave, with polls showing more than half the population feel it failed to respond adequately.

Controversially, President Jacques Chirac has refused to reprimand his government and instead promised to avert similar catastrophes in the future by patching up the most obvious failings in the national health system and boosting the emergency services' funding.

But Mr Chirac also said the tragic consequences of the freak weather showed French society had to become more "responsive and attentive" to the vulnerability of the aged and unwell - a notion which could well explain the unusual proposal to scrap one of France's 13 public holidays.

There remains the thorny question of which holiday to cancel. The most likely appears to be May 8, which marks the end of the second world war in Europe. Picking Armistice Day, November 11, would be too sensitive a choice in a country which lost 1.4 million men in the first world war; May Day would be politically unacceptable on the left; and the religious feast days are out of the question.

The suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm by the employers' federation, whose chairman, Ernest-Antoine Seillìre, said it was "a great novelty in France to believe that problems can be solved by working harder".

But the head of the powerful Force Ouvrière union, Marc Blondel, said the idea smacked of the Soviet Union and was a "wholly unmodern" approach to the problem.

· A 325-year-old tree known as Marie Antoinette's oak has become the oldest victim of France's continuing drought. The tree - planted at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris in 1681 - was saved from uprooting in the late 18th century by Marie Antoinette, the soon-to-be-guillotined wife of Louis XVI, who liked to sit in its shade. It finally succumbed last week, the palace gardener said.

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