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Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003

0 Comments 🕔09.Jun 2016

In August of 2003, a severe heat wave descended across France, leaving nearly 15,000 people dead in its wake (3). Like Hurricane Katrina or the destructive Asian tsunami of 2011, France’s catastrophic heat wave appears, at first glance, to have been a “natural disaster”—the unfortunate but unavoidable result of environmental forces beyond human control. The high temperatures that France experienced during the late summer of 2003 were indeed the consequence of an extreme weather anomaly. An unrelenting high-pressure front lingered over Western Europe for weeks with little movement, causing temperatures to rise to a staggering 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) for days at a time (3). While such high temperatures undoubtedly presented a serious danger to humans, recent literature has demonstrated that weather-related fatalities are as much the result of bad management choices, flawed urban planning, and social prejudices as they are the product of severe weather itself.[1] In his timely and important book, Fatal Isolation, historian Richard C. Keller offers a social and political explanation for the mass deaths that ravaged Paris during the summer of 2003. In doing so, he makes thought-provoking connections among the history of climate, French political culture, public health, and urban architecture.

For Keller, one of the most intriguing post-mortem statistics from the 2003 heat wave was the death toll for the elderly. Approximately 80% of the people who lost their lives during the extreme weather event were over the age of 75 (21). According to Keller, elderly Parisians died en masse not simply because their bodies were physically weak and vulnerable to the stresses of heat, but because their social networks had frayed, causing them to be isolated and unable to access the medical help that they needed to survive. In his moving narrative, Keller describes how many of the heat wave’s elderly victims died alone from severe dehydration in tiny, boiling hot apartments. Neighbors were alerted to their deaths only after a horrifying stench emerged from behind their locked doors. Reminiscent of Ellen Stroud’s studies on the environmental history of dead bodies, Keller’s book describes how many of the corpses that French first responders discovered had decayed beyond recognition; several of the victims’ body fluids had even seeped into floorboards, causing irreparable damage.[2] Even after state medical teams removed the victims from Parisian residences, their bodies continued to be treated with callous disregard; many of the dead wound up in the Thiais Cemetery on the outskirts of Paris, where they remain unclaimed until this day.

In order to figure out how and why the heat wave was able to claim the lives of so many elderly Parisians, Keller examines both the official and the unofficial narratives of the disaster that emerged after 2003. His first chapter focuses on the stories that French officials, politicians, and journalists told about the heat wave, and importantly, how they laid blame for the scale of death. By the middle of August, Keller writes, the French health ministry had already begun to call the mass deaths a hécatombe, or a “massacre” (39). But French political parties and media outlets disagreed on which people or institutions were responsible for the crime. For the French Right, the disaster was the result of a decline in moral values, an absence of social responsibility, and a selfish laziness that was pervasive among France’s younger generations. The French Left, on the other hand, blamed the massacre on the decline of national solidarity and a failing welfare state that no longer provided the services that it once had. The media-driven interpretation of the mass death focused primarily on “social atomization” (52). Television screens juxtaposed the images of suffering elderly grandparents with happy young families vacationing on the beach in the south of France. While these dominant narratives can teach us a great deal about France’s political culture in the early 2000s, Keller argues that they all paint an overly simplistic picture of the root causes for the heat wave’s mass deaths. “Written sources about the disaster are easy to find,” Keller explains, “medical and media reports are legion; transcripts of political hearings are a click away. But the victims remain mute, having left few sources behind” (90). He therefore proposes to focus most of his book on an alternative narrative of the heat wave, a “counter-history of the disaster—a story of the heat wave from the ‘bottom up’” (4).

In chapter two, Keller discusses the ethnographic-style research methodology that serves as the basis for his “counter-history” of the heat wave. Keller crisscrossed Paris himself, visiting the residences of ninety-three heat wave victims and conducting one-on-one interviews with neighbors who lived in close proximity to the deceased. Keller refers to the neighbors as “informants,” and their oral testimonies as “anecdotes.” The anecdote, Keller explains, is a valuable piece of literary and empirical evidence that anthropologists, historians, and literary critics have employed in cases where the individual voices of marginalized or silenced populations are hard to locate otherwise (77). When presented together, the neighbors’ anecdotes offer a devastating portrait of a vulnerable and marginalized elderly population that French society had neglected to the point of death. At the same time, one wonders if the anecdotes that Keller assembled can really offer adequate insight into the victims’ lived experiences of suffering and isolation. Most of the anecdotes that Keller reproduces in the book came from neighbors who were casual acquaintances of the deceased and only encountered them a few times a month. In fact, most of the informants held quite negative views of their elderly neighbors, portraying them as “difficult subjects whose alienation from the community was self-induced” (80). In spite of Keller’s best efforts, the private thoughts and personal pain of the victims still appear lost.

Aside from the anecdotes that he gathered from informants, Keller also examined the built environments in which individual heat wave victims died. It turns out that the deceased were quite evenly spread out among Paris’s twenty districts, or arrondissements. The deciding factor in the heat wave’s geography of death, Keller brilliantly demonstrates, was not horizontal but vertical. In order to explain why, Keller reaches back to the origins of modern Parisian urban planning in the mid-nineteenth century. During the 1850s and 1860s (when Emperor Napoleon III’s chief urban planner Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann, razed many of the streets and buildings of medieval Paris to the ground and replaced them with broad boulevards and neo-classical buildings for the rising bourgeois classes) the city’s poor were left with few housing options. Many moved to the outskirts of the city, but a significant number of working poor found places to live at the vertical limits of the Parisian skyline—on the 6th or 7th floors of the well-appointed apartment buildings situated near the urban center. Popularly known as chambres de bonne, or maids’ quarters, these tiny rooms were located at the top of long, winding spiral staircases. Built for nineteenth-century female laborers, these rooms were not made to be pleasant—they were crammed, poorly ventilated, and offered meager access to shared bathrooms. In 2003, Keller demonstrates, these very same rooms became sites of death for thousands of Paris’ elderly.

The fact that so many old people in Paris dwell in tiny rooms originally designed as maids’ quarters tells us a great deal, Keller argues, about the marginalization of France’s aging population, which is the focus of chapter four. Making a beautiful connection to recent work on the history of human rights by scholars such as Lynn Hunt, Keller argues that notions of fraternity and universal Republican citizenship unravel when we document their limitations in everyday life.[3] While scholars have focused primarily on the flaws of Republican political culture for women, immigrants, and racial minorities, they have been slower to recognize that the elderly, too, often find themselves in de-humanizing situations. In busting the myth of an aging French population that is well cared for by a robust social welfare state, Keller invites scholars of human rights to explore a new area of focus.

Furthering his focus on the de-humanization of elderly French citizens, Keller’s final chapter underscores the problems that arise when a society relies too heavily on metrics to manage the health of its aging population. As a historian of medicine, Keller is well equipped to guide us through a history of modern France’s public health infrastructure that dates back to the late eighteenth century. Drawing from Michel Foucault’s notion of bio-power, Keller argues that the French state has maintained a consistent interest in regulating the health of its citizens through statistical data, a vast healthcare bureaucracy, and top-down hygiene initiatives. While intended to improve the life expectancy of its citizens, the effect of state health measures, Keller points out, can often be just the opposite. By reducing elderly care to a series of statistical numbers, the state obscures their aging citizens’ humanity. There are no statistics, for example, that can measure an elderly citizen’s social isolation or their vulnerability to random events like extreme weather (147).

After reading Keller’s powerful indictment of the “unnatural” causes of mass death during the Paris heat wave of 2003, we are left with the question of “what now?” Due to global warming, extreme weather events are likely to become the norm in the twenty-first century. Has France learned any lessons from 2003? What systems are in place for the elderly and infirm still living in Parisian chambres de bonne? Some creative solutions are being tested. Keller points, for example, to the futuristic housing designs of architect Edouard François, who came up with plans for a new housing block called “Eden Bio” on the outskirts of Paris that are surrounded by greenery and comprised of building materials that are suitable for staving off the heat (188). But one suspects much more will have to be done to tackle the dangers posed by the potentially fatal combination of extreme weather and failed social policies. For Europe’s elderly, along with other vulnerable populations, such as immigrants and refugees, there is little time to waste for creating new kinds of housing to meet the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century.

Reviewed by Catherine Dunlop, Montana State University

Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003                                                                              

by Richard C. Keller
University of Chicago Press
Hardcover / 240 pages / 2015
ISBN: 978022625110


Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011); Mark Molesky, This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason (New York: Knopf, 2015).

[1] See Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2002); Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Jeffrey H. Jackson,

[2] See, for example, Ellen Stroud, “Dead Bodies in Harlem: Environmental History and the Geography of Death,” in The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape and Urban Space, ed. Andrew Isenberg (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2006), 62-76.

[3] See Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008).

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