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Forget Haute, It's Plain Hot

The sheen in Paris is sweat, not glamour. And air conditioning? That's just `a bourgeois deal.'

July 27, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Like Los Angeles, Paris broiled Wednesday.

As the temperature climbed toward 100 degrees, the French capital baked, fumed and seethed.

Tempers flared. Taxi drivers and salespeople scowled even more than usual. Subway passengers resembled sweat-drenched inmates of a rolling, furnace-equipped dungeon. Desperate tourists and natives plunged fully clothed into the ornamental fountains of the Tuileries Garden and the Trocadero plaza.

"Paris furnace: 98 degrees in the shade," trumpeted Le Parisien newspaper, which covers weather with the same scrappy enthusiasm it devotes to crime and politics, on Tuesday.

It could be worse. The death toll in France during a Europe-wide July heat wave has reached an estimated 40, comparable with California's casualties. Nothing like the summer of 2003, when heat combined with social dysfunction, leaving 15,000 dead.

Three years ago, thousands of sick and elderly died in hospitals and nursing homes, many of which lacked air conditioning. Thousands more perished alone in apartments, where their families had abandoned them for the summer. The national obsession with a monthlong August vacation at all costs took on a grimly selfish aspect when Cabinet ministers and health officials lounging in resorts failed to realize the extent of the disaster for days. Dozens of corpses were buried in paupers' graves because relatives did not come back from trips to claim them.

This time, the government launched a concerted effort to protect the vulnerable. In Paris, 380 retired doctors have joined a program to monitor the sick, aged and homeless. Emergency services are on alert.

"The catastrophe of 2003 cannot happen again," Health Minister Xavier Bertrand declared this week.

Nonetheless, in one respect the lessons of history appear to have gone unlearned. Blame habit, stinginess, environmental awareness or a sheer stubborn tolerance for sweating like a pig at work, over meals and at home: The French have yet to embrace full-blast air conditioning.

In cities such as Los Angeles, New York or Madrid, many restaurants, businesses, office buildings and public conveyances offer air conditioned oases of relief during hot weather.

In Paris, a heat-stunned pedestrian can stagger for blocks, especially in areas that are not prime tourist draws, before finding a refuge outfitted with anything more than open windows or a clunky, 1970s-era fan.

Before 2003, when Parisians were asked how they could stand to work or eat in sweaty, stagnant enclosures, they usually responded with a Gallic shrug and a sentiment along the lines of: "We don't need it because it's only hot for two months a year."

Then the killer heat wave demonstrated that two months is a long time to be miserable -- and plenty of time for the weather to kill you. Air conditioning sales have gone up each summer since then, according to Ciat company, a major manufacturer of the appliances.

But resistance remains ingrained. A debate, startlingly antiquated to many foreigners, continues about whether to generalize the American-style use of air conditioning. The reasons against the idea include cost, environmental damage and a deep-seated national aversion to drafts, cold drinks or anything else that can cause a sore throat. In an Internet forum on the topic, a participant named Sniper10 expressed typical hostility.

"It sounds classy to say you have AC," Sniper10 said. "But a little fan, close the shutters, a jug of nice cool orange juice and that takes care of it ... AC, that's still a bourgeois deal."

But a bourgeois, if often unspoken idea, also drives the reluctance to fight the heat with real weapons. Many Parisians see it as their God-given right to escape the capital as long as possible in summer. Anyone stuck here in August is regarded as a pathetic creature unworthy of solace or comfort.

At Le Brebant cafe in central Paris, manager Ryan Tamzali has installed an elaborate alternative to air conditioning: 50 devices above patrons' heads that spray a cooling mist of water.

"It's natural," Tamzali said. "Clients appreciate it. Only a few women who just got done at the hairdresser complained."

*

Claire Rocher of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.

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