Paris at 41C: a postcard from the future

Adults laughed in the fountains under the Eiffel Tower, but it’s a joke that will become less funny with each new heatwave.

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Three days ago I boarded an early train at London St Pancras, bleary-eyed but still firmly in the present. Two hours later, when I disembarked in Paris, I found myself in the future.

The future was hot. Even in northern Europe, even in June, the heat was almost unbearable. The neon green cross of a French pharmacy, just around the corner from the Gare du Nord, flashed 41C, over and over and over, its warning hard to see in the sun's glare.

On the news, reporters warned that for a number of reasons – the humidity, traffic, the built-up nature of the city – the air temperature actually felt more like 46 degrees. Adverts from the French government, shown on television at 15-minute intervals, reminded us of things that should go without saying: drink water, stay inside, avoid alcohol, avoid exercise.

The future felt like fun, for now. Middle-aged adults played like children, losing their inhibitions and stripping down to their underwear by a main road in the centre of one of the world’s busiest cities. They laughed as they swam in the thigh-deep water of a fountain under the Eiffel Tower. But what happens when the global temperatures continue to rise, and the fountains – and the temporary swimming pools forced to open this weekend – become a crowded public service. Will it still be a joke then?

Paris this weekend was a glimpse of a future in which the schools are closed during the day and the swimming pools open all night. People swam past 10.30pm; at midnight, the temperature was barely below 30 degrees. During the days, an app, “Extrema Paris”, gave residents and visitors the distance to the nearest water fountain, shaded area, or the cool respite of a church.

The future was slow, because it had to be. It was a city dialled down to 50 per cent; still functioning, but at half the pace, slowed by headaches and the need to find benches to rest on halfway through every sluggish walk. On street corners in the burning sun, men waited by buckets of bulk-bought bottles, knowing that soon somebody would be thirsty enough to pay the mark-up on their water.

The future, like the past, was not fair. The wealthy residents of luxury apartments enjoyed their air conditioning while those on the streets were further heated by the exhaust. For everybody else, short-term relief was found in the “cool rooms” set up in unused corners of local authority offices. A government helpline allowed the vulnerable to call somebody to pick them up and drop them off at these rooms when their homes became too hot to endure. The future was suncream for those who could afford it, and sunburn for those who couldn’t.

The future was a government register, on which the elderly who live alone could list themselves as being especially at risk, so that during heatwaves somebody could pop in and check they are still alive. It was record temperatures and red alerts and cars banned from Paris’s roads in efforts to tackle a spike in heatwave-related pollution. The future was emergency homeless shelters opened around the clock to offer water and showers to those in need, and parks left unlocked all night.

The future was an argument in which people loudly proclaimed that the earth has always had hot periods, while scientists repeated “not like this, though”.

France has experienced the future before. In 2003, the hottest summer in five centuries caused 14,802 deaths across France, and an estimated 70,000 across Europe. Emergency morgues were set up in refrigerated lorries and supermarket store rooms. The country is desperate to avoid a repeat of that future, but it may not have a choice.

Right now, if you are as privileged as I am, the future may seem like a weekend break conveniently heated up. But the future is terrifying – it is a hot mess of conflict, blame, grief and anger – and it’s so nearly here.

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.