France: Mudslides, floods - and drought

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France has been cut in two by extremes of bad weather since the end of last week. In the north and west, there have been torrential rainstorms, mud slides and temperatures 6C below normal. The south, especially the south-east, has been afflicted by drought, high winds and 70 forest fires, including one that killed two firefighters.

France has been cut in two by extremes of bad weather since the end of last week. In the north and west, there have been torrential rainstorms, mud slides and temperatures 6C below normal. The south, especially the south-east, has been afflicted by drought, high winds and 70 forest fires, including one that killed two firefighters.

With a record number of tourists expected to visit France this year, partly thanks to the weakness of the euro, the country had been hoping to break a pattern of "rotten Julys". No such luck, so far.

The rain was even spreading into the south yesterday, although better weather is forecast from Thursday.

Since last Thursday, the north has been lashed by the same unseasonal weather that has washed over the British Isles. The averagerainfall of the month of July - 45 litres per square metre - fell on parts of the Paris area in just one day on Friday. The temperature, from Brittany to Alsace, has been 15C to 18C, six below normal for July. Snow was forecast on high ground in the Auvergne and Alps last night.

High winds in the Bay of Biscay forced the suspension of renewed efforts to pump oil from the wreck of the tanker Erika, which sank off southern Brittany in December. Mud-slides in railway cuttings forced the diversion of high-speed trains to the west and south-west at the weekend.

South of the Massif Central, the country has faced a plague of a different kind. Days of dry weather, followed by the high, dry mistral and canicule winds, brought a rash of forest fires. Tens of thousands of acres of scrub and forest were burnt in Provence and Corsica. At Cornillon-Confoux, just north-west of Marseilles, two firefighters were cut off as they tried to flee the blaze in their truck on Sunday, and burnt to death. Their funeral yesterday was attended by hundreds of their colleagues.

Meteo-France blamed the weather on a huge anti-cyclone anchored in the Atlantic off Portugal. Typically, the anticyclone would settle on the Continent at this time of year, bringing dry, sunny weather. Instead, western Europe has been lashed by its fringes.

French meteorologists say the run of poor Julys since the beginning of the 1990s is "coincidence", and there is no reason yet to seek cataclysmic explanations, such as permanently disturbed weather from a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They say the rainfall and temperatures are not yet the worst on record for the month.

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