Help ordered for needy as French freeze kills five

Local authorities across France were ordered yesterday to provide more help for people sleeping rough after five people died from cold over the Christmas period. The instruction came from the minister for emergency humanitarian action, Xavier Emmanuelli, in response to mounting public indignation that people could die in such circumstances in Nineties France.

Four of the five dead were homeless people in their fifties and sixties. Two died in central Paris, one in the doorway of an apartment block being refurbished. A third was found dead in a park in the centre of Brest, while the fourth, a woman, was found close to the station in the western town of Treport. The fifth was a pensioner who lived in a caravan in the Paris region.

Much of France has been in the grip of icy weather since Christmas Eve, when snow - and torrential rain and hail in the south - disrupted holiday travel arrangements for thousands. Even in Paris, temperatures have not ventured above zero for three days, and the cold spell is forecast to continue at least into early next week at least.

The current temperatures, minus 8C in Paris yesterday, and minus 14- 15C in eastern and central France, are up to 10 degrees colder than average for the time of year.

Paris and other French cities already have extensive emergency arrangements for homeless people and others sleeping rough in winter. As well as hostels, a number of central Paris underground stations are kept open through the night, and hundreds of charity soup kitchens, known as restaurants du coeur, are open from mid-December to mid-March for those of limited means.

This year, however, charity workers say that there has been a sharp increase in those wanting to use the soup kitchens and many borderline cases have had to be turned away. As in Britain, additional events are organised over Christmas and New Year - on Christmas Eve, 1,500 of the Paris homeless were entertained to Christmas dinner on five Seine cruise boats, while another 1,000 are to be given a new year dinner in the precincts of the vast science centre in the north-east of the city.

Conscious, no doubt of the poor standing of the government, several ministers presided at charitable Christmas dinners in the towns and districts where they are also the local mayor (and invited the television cameras).

Yet in Paris yesterday, there was space to spare in emergency accommodation for the homeless. One middle-aged man said he was not going anywhere near a hostel because he would have to give up his dog.