The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A heat wave killed 15,000 in France in 2003. As temperatures soar again, officials are taking no chances.

France is postponing exams, opening pools and urging residents to stay hydrated.

Children play and cool off in the fountain of André Citroën square in Paris. (Thibault Camus/AP)

Forget your exams, go to the pool and make sure to eat. That’s the message French authorities are urgently sending residents, and not just for joie de vivre — but as a matter of life or death.

As a massive heat wave bears down on Europe in coming days, France is hoping to avoid the devastating death toll it suffered in 2003, during the hottest spell in centuries. That July and August, an estimated 70,000 people across Europe died of heat-related causes. About 15,000 of those deaths occurred in France — and in Paris, morgues overflowed with bodies.

The city has since devised plans to avoid such casualties during surges in temperatures, which scientists say are becoming more common in Europe as a result of climate change. Those plans will be put to the test this week, when temperatures across Europe are expected to rise between 20 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit above normal as hot air from deserts in Spain and the Sahara blows northward.

Temperatures in Germany on Wednesday could smash the June record of around 101 degrees Fahrenheit set in Frankfurt in 1947, meteorologists warned. The heat wave is also expected to hit Belgium and Switzerland, and some parts of Sweden and Denmark could see unusually hot days, as well.

But the memory of the deadly summer of 2003 weighs most heavily on France, and authorities there have already begun to implement emergency plans.

In France, temperatures from Wednesday through Friday could climb beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). Paris has issued an orange alert — its second-highest heat warning — for the city and surrounding area.

Authorities announced a number of measures to keep residents cool, including installing temporary water fountains and three portable pools in high-density neighborhoods, keeping swimming pools open until 10:30 p.m., and even permitting residents to swim in the basin of the Canal de la Villette in northern Paris.

On Sunday, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo told Le Journal du Dimanche that 13 large parks will remain open overnight until at least Monday next week, and the city is distributing 5,000 water bottles to the homeless. The city is also improvising misting devices out of fire hydrants and setting up more than 900 “cooling rooms” for residents. The new la Chappelle shelter for migrants will remain open all week and provide 400 showers per day, Hidalgo said.

“We are ready,” she told JDD.

The heat particularly threatens children, pregnant women and the elderly, city authorities warn. The city has set up a special phone service for elderly and sick people, and authorities have asked hospitals and retirement homes to be on alert. Older residents left alone made up many of the victims of the 2003 heat crisis.

“As you know, at times like these, sick people, pregnant women, infants and elderly people are the most vulnerable,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday. “So we must be vigilant with them and have prevention measures in place in order to intervene as quickly as possible.”

The City of Light is trying to make sure its citizens stay cool and hydrated as forecasts predict a record breaking heat wave to hit Paris this week. (Video: The Washington Post)

Europeans, including the French, use air conditioning far less liberally than do Americans — so cooling off can prove trickier. A poster circulated by the regional health agency for Paris warns all residents to drink plenty of water, to refrain from consuming alcohol and to “wet the body” frequently.

Parisians already appear to be heeding the advice. Children splashed in the Trocadéro fountains by the Eiffel Tower on Tuesday to cool off, and technology stores in Paris offered special sales on fans.

Middle school students are getting an unexpected reprieve from national exams scheduled for June 27 and 28. The exams, which determine whether students pass the equivalent of the ninth grade, have been postponed until the following week because of the heat, national education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer announced Monday.

The heat wave also coincides with the Women’s World Cup, which France is hosting. Four games are scheduled between Thursday and Saturday, the period when meteorologists predict temperatures will reach their peak. Soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, said it may take heat precautions in coming days, which could include mandating water breaks or rescheduling games.