Reshuffle in Paris?

France's center-right government is in the hot seat for the way it handled the unprecedented mid-August heat wave, which claimed as many as 10,000 lives. As a result, President Jacques Chirac may move forward plans for a Cabinet reshuffle that could even see the departure of controversial Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and Finance Minister Francis Mer.

The crisis has already claimed its first victim with the Aug. 18 resignation of France's top medical official, Lucien Abenhaïm, and Health Minister Jean-François Mattei is likely to be next. A shortage of hospital beds and lack of air-conditioning in retirement homes exacerbated the effects of the 10-day heat wave. Many claim that the government should have moved much more quickly to proclaim a public health emergency.

Instead, Paris fumbled from the start. While France sizzled in 100-degree heat, almost all government ministers were on vacation. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin only called his team back to the capital for an emergency meeting on Aug. 14, three days after the heat peaked. Even Chirac is on the defensive for being on vacation in Canada during the heat wave.

The crisis comes at a bad time for the 15-month-old Raffarin government. It has been pulling back from promised economic reforms and badly handled a performing artists' strike that closed down many of France's famous summer music and theater festivals. Chirac is said to think a Cabinet reshuffle may improve the government's declining popularity.

By Christina Passariello in Paris

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