The heat wave in France during August of 2003 resulted in the deaths of an estimated 15,000 people, most of them elderly. This catastrophe was a collective failure with multiple causes and consequences. Unlike many major disasters, heat waves are largely ‘invisible’ or ‘stealth’ killers. The phenomenon itself can be difficult to assess and the victims include some of the most isolated members of society, themselves often ‘invisible’. But the fact that most of the victims of the French 2003 heat wave were elderly brings another dimension. French society has been confronted in a brutal way with the social implications of an ageing population and the tragedy of the heat wave has brought home to many people the important question of quality of life in old age. Two years after the heat wave, the shockwaves that surround the deaths of so many elderly people are still resounding in many different aspects of French political and social life.
This report aims to explore some of the social implications arising from French heat wave in the context of concerns about services for older people and more generally the quality of life in old age. It provides an outline of how the heat wave unfolded and the response of the French to an incident that has been ranked among the world’s greatest natural disasters of the past 50 years. At the same time, the report tries to move beyond a factual account by providing a sociological explanation of the event itself and the aftermath.