Four die as flooding threatens Paris

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More than a week of heavy rain has caused widespread flooding across northern France, from Brittany and Normandy to the Alsace and as far south as Paris and Nantes.

Floods in southern Brittany are said to be the worst this century, with four people dead and hundreds evacuated. Streets in Rennes, where the river burst its banks, were under several feet of water and road and rail travel has been severely disrupted.

Even in Paris, protected by barrages to the south and east, the Seine has risen to "critical" levels and river traffic has been halted because the force of the current is too dangerous.

Roads along the embankments have been closed and vans and mini-buses were up to the top of their wheels in grimy brown water.

The flooding has become a national preoccupation. Television news bulletins open with huge maps of northern France, pictures of the riot police rescuing people from flooded homes and weather forecasts that predict more rain.

Le Monde, true to its intellectual reputation, produced a philosopher who also is head of public affairs for the French federation of insurance companies.

He said natural disasters had replaced accidents and illness as the source of greatest dread. Investigative reporters have come up with culprits. In Brittany, intensive farming, which cut down hedges and cleared banks and woodland has been blamed. Othersclaim that urbanisation has reduced the surface area that is porous and increased the water flowing into the rivers.

For Paris, the most pessimistic outlook came from the organisation that is responsible for the barrages protecting the city: if it carries on raining like this for another 18 days, the reservoirs will overflow.

t The southern Netherlands appeared to be winning its battle against floods yesterday as thousands of volunteers braved driving rain to reinforce emergency dykes with sandbags, Reuter reports from Maastricht.

Local officials said that water levels in the Maas had stabilised and the evacuation of the flood areas was proceeding smoothly. But the Rhine, which joins the Maas near Rotterdam, was rising fast and authorities said that they were considering a full-scale evacuation in the east Netherlands.

Virtually all inland river shipping - including barge traffic to Germany- has been banned in the Netherlands because of the flooding.

The Dutch waterways are a key supply route through western Europe for oil and other commodities, linking the giant ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam with the industrial heartlands of Germany and Switzerland.