France gripped by unseasonal cold snap

Up to 80,000 households lose electricity and mobile phone system fails to function

The snow-covered Place du Tertre, a square at the Butte Montmartre area in Paris yesterday as snow and freezing temperatures returned to northern France. Photograph: Reuters

The snow-covered Place du Tertre, a square at the Butte Montmartre area in Paris yesterday as snow and freezing temperatures returned to northern France. Photograph: Reuters

Wed, Mar 13, 2013, 06:00

Snow was expected to continue over France north of the Loire until the early hours of this morning, after the north and west of the country were paralysed by snowfall yesterday.

Two departments in Normandy were put on a red weather alert, extremely rare for March, with some 28 others placed on orange alert.

Some 2,200 were trapped in cars overnight on Monday, caught in 100km/h winds and snowdrifts of up to 1.5m; 725 of them sheltered in public buildings in La Manche department. About 80,000 households lost electricity and mobile telephones stopped working.

An Irish Ferries vessel transporting 400 French school children from a holiday in Ireland was forced to wait off the coast of Cherbourg, but was expected to dock late yesterday.

At least three high-speed TGV trains carrying hundreds of passengers were blocked in northern France. Eurostar services to London and Brussels were suspended.


Exposure
Up to a quarter of flights from Roissy Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports were cancelled, while Lille and Beauvais airports shut down completely. Departures and arrivals at Paris airports, where snow fell continuously on runways, were delayed about an hour. Passengers were warned not to go to the airport without first confirming their flights had been maintained.

A homeless man (58) died in St Brieuc, Brittany, presumably from exposure. Fourteen people were injured on a motorway near Lille, including six firemen who had gone to rescue accident victims.

Service on the Paris metro, bus and tramway system was seriously disrupted. The SNCF railway company asked passengers not to attempt to travel to Paris, after thousands were already stranded on railway platforms and in packed trains. Most of the entries on the panel at Paris’s Gare du Nord read “retard indéterminé”.

Seven million people use public transport to go to work daily in the Paris-Île de France region.


War-like rhetoric
Criticism of the authorities mounted: for acting tardily to keep heavy lorries off the roads; for failing to rescue stranded motorists and for the absence of salting trucks.

President François Hollande used war-like rhetoric, saying his government was “mobilised” and that “everything must be done so that our compatriots may be liberated”.

Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault organised a “crisis unit” at government offices and promised that cabinet ministers would be sent “there where it is possible to go”.

Temperatures are expected to remain below zero until Friday, with lows of -10 in the Paris region today. The Météo France weather service called the snow storms “remarkable for the season, as much for the quantities expected as for the duration”.

Guillaume Séchet of the Paris weather service said this has been the French capital’s worst winter in at least 20 years.

Rainfall exceeded the December average by 30 per cent. Roissy airport recorded 27 days of snow this winter. Only 11 hours and 27 minutes of sunshine were recorded in Auxerre, Burgundy, in January.

“Falling brutally back into winter is even harder because we had false hopes last weekend, when we thought we were seeing the first signs of spring,” Mr Séchet told the newspaper.