PARIS, France – When a weather system dragged the Sahara’s baking air into France this past week, Paris treated the foreign invader as a mortal threat. Yet the reactions of ordinary people were more surprising and more telling.
All levels of French government sprang to action. Government ministries offered shelter from the swelter. Schools were closed; final exams postponed. The city set aside air-conditioned rooms, lined with cots and stocked with water and food. Dire warnings were regular refrain on radio and television.
On every one’s mind was the 2003 heat wave that claimed tens of thousands of lives across France and Western Europe. While estimates vary, most victims were elderly and lived alone.
The heat arrived. Fortunately, the deaths did not. Temperatures in Paris climbed over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. One Southern French city set a new national record of 114.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
One Frenchwoman told me that she decided to get back together with her boyfriend. He had air-conditioning and she did not.
Millions of ordinary Frenchmen adopted a sang froid vaguely reminiscent of the Londoners enduring the World War II blitz. They carried on. And this being France, they did it in their unique way.
One Frenchwoman told me that she decided to get back together with her boyfriend. He had air-conditioning and she did not. Will it last? She laughed. “It depends on the weather…”
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a French journalist, moved her cats into an air-conditioned room in her first arrondisement apartment and served bowels of water with ice cubes.
Led by a French friend, Katie Geddes who was visiting Paris, decided to leave town and go underground.
They took a tour through the cellars of Champagne, beginning with Veuve Cliquot. “The cellars are very cool. The walls are made of chalk and soft glossy rock. This absorbs the heat,” a young scientist explained.
While there are no official figures, many other Parisians had the same idea.
The one region of the French hexagon boasting normal summer temperatures was the northwest maritime provinces stretching from the Normandy beaches to the port city of Calais. Those who could flooded to the coast for the weekend.
Jean-Guillaume de Tocqueville, who was hosting the “Tocqueville Conversations” at the chateau where his ancestor, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, said many buses and trains from Paris to his cooler clime had sold out.
“France is not equipped for this kind of heat,” he said.
On Sunday morning, the express train from Caen to Paris was packed. Across the aisle from me, an older woman sat at a table with a small dog on her lap while three young men played games on their phones. She said she was a “climate refugee.”
When I observed that few wore sunglasses, the desk man at the Hotel L’Empereur shot back: “This is not California.”
Back in Paris, people adapted in many different ways. Café waiters put chalkboards and placards in their windows with a single word on them: “climatsee.” Air conditioned.
Some Parisiennes shifted to very short dresses but many more selected long flowing ones. When a rare breeze came, the sidewalk along Avenue de Tourville was full of flapping fabric like a farmhouse clothesline.
Older men and children wore hats. When I observed that few wore sunglasses, the desk man at the Hotel L’Empereur shot back: “This is not California.”
As night fell, every swatch of lawn or park along the Seine was filled with circles of people escaping the heat.
This being France, nearly every one I talked to blamed climate change. When I pointed out that the U.N.’s computer-climate models predicted an average warming of about one degree Celsius over the next century—in other words, this was weather variation, not climate change—something seemed lost in translation, either between English and French or between science and faith.
“We will have to change our industrialism,” one said, “or every summer will be like this one.”
Few seemed to notice that they had adapted and survived, without costly new programs or plans. Plus ca change…
Mr. Miniter is a bestselling author.
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