The national health authority said the toll includes those killed directly or indirectly in the record-breaking heat experienced since July 25. The figure is based on an extrapolation of Parisian numbers.
The death toll is the first the government has released, having previously said it was impossible to accurately gauge the number of heat-related deaths.
The health ministry said it based its newly released estimates on death reports from mortuaries and hospitals that revealed a 37 percent spike from Aug. 6-12 compared to the same period last summer.
Jean-Francois Mattei, France’s health minister, told French radio, “I think we can now qualify what is happening as a genuine epidemic.”
According to Mattei, the upcoming holiday weekend would be a difficult period, although forecasts show the country may have borne the worst of the heat.
In anticipation of another deadly weekend, the government has implemented emergency measures, recalling medical workers from their August vacations to hospitals overwhelmed with patients — many elderly — who are afflicted with heat-related conditions.
Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said Tuesday that members of the public would be admitted to military hospitals in order to help ease the crisis.
The response comes after doctors and opposition politicians have accused the government of not responding quickly or seriously enough to the health care crisis, sparking arguments on the political front. Raffarin ended his vacation early in an attempt to defend his administration’s response to the crisis, saying it had been planning action “for several weeks.”
For their part, hospitals have set up refrigerated tents to cope with the influx of patients with heat-related conditions, such as dehydration.
Undertakers are also expected to work on Friday, although it is a French national holiday and businesses would normally be closed.
Besides the health ramifications, Paris recorded extremely high pollution Wednesday, and forest fires in the South continue to burn out of control. Also Wednesday, bus drivers threatened to strike if they were not provided with air conditioning and sunglasses.
Heat levels are expected to drop through much of France on Thursday, allowing some respite for those in the northern part of the country. Although high temperatures will continue for now in southern France and other parts of Europe, forecasters predict the worst of the heat is past.
“The heatwave’s over,” Patrick Galois of Meteo France told Reuters news agency.
“Summer isn’t over yet but even if there are hot periods in the coming weeks we won’t have the temperatures seen in recent days.”
Record-breaking highs have also been recorded in Portugal, the U.K., Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria. Portugal has been the hottest country, recording temperatures of 47.30 Celsius (117.14 Fahrenheit), the highest since record keeping started in 1856.