Why is France’s fire safety record such a disgrace?

When Prince William last travelled to Courchevel 1850 with family and friends, he is said to have used a private jet belonging to the billionaire Duke of Westminster.

27 February 2019
By Nabila Ramdani

It was a fitting mode of transport for a super-rich group enjoying one of Europe’s most exclusive ski resorts. They dined at Michelin-rated restaurants, shopped at designer boutiques and slept in five-star accommodation in a place where hotels – including three with “Palace” ratings – cost more than anywhere in France outside Paris.

What a contrast to the squalid, cramped rooms from which low-paid seasonal workers were seen jumping as they tried to escape a fire in a Courchevel 1850 housing block on January 20. A blaze started on an upper floor, killing two and injuring more than 20.

Most of the escapees were young, ensuring a lower death toll than might be expected, given the building’s dubious fire safety measures. Survivors complained there was no alarm, and that any smoke detectors, fire extinguishers or hoses that were present were not working.

Exits were soon barred by smoke and flames. Metal spiral staircases on the side of the wooden structure heated up in seconds. Haphazardly parked cars in the street below made it difficult for fire engines and other emergency vehicles to get close.

An equally disturbing part of the tragedy was that the entire complex was owned by the Tournier Group, the company that manages many of the Russian oligarch and celebrity-packed establishments enjoyed by Prince William.

Tournier denies any wrongdoing, and is cooperating with investigators. Prosecutors have, meanwhile, launched a criminal inquiry, just as they have for a gas blast and fire that killed four people, including two firefighters, in the ninth arrondissement of Paris in January. It was the same with a blaze in the 16th arrondissement on February 5. There were 10 deaths and 30 badly wounded this time. A woman who was undergoing treatment for psychiatric problems, and who had been in court for anti-social behaviour, was taken into custody, suspected of trying to burn her neighbours following a dispute over loud music. Beyond the criminal allegations, firefighters reported that access to the building was appalling. Many people were trapped on the roof, where some jumped from eight storeys up.

Due process may allow the truth to emerge, but there are regular  suspicions of cover-ups when death-trap council blocks go up in flames all too easily. Those beautiful facades in the city of love and light hide plenty of dark dangers within. There is a scandalous safety gap between the very rich and the ordinary people in France. Incidents involving those with limited funds and even less status getting harmed because of lax standards are frighteningly common. This applies as much to the public sec-tor as to the private one.

Smoke alarms are hardly heard of in many buildings, there are no fire escapes, and ancient wiring and boilers remain unchecked for years. As publicity for such problems increases, you only have to look across the Channel to Britain to see where two-tier safety procedures can lead. It was on June 14 2017 that a fire swept through Grenfell Tower, in North Kensington, west London. The 24-storey conflagration could easily be seen from the luxury proper-ties nearby, as 72 died and almost the same number of people were injured. Most were council tenants – the majority very poor and from ethnic minorities.

British investigators are asking why – despite numerous warnings – nothing had been done to improve fire safety. Repeats of Grenfell are still very likely, they claim, and this is a matter of “national shame”. The council concerned is Kensington and Chelsea – one that happens to cover Kensington Palace, a fabulously opulent building that includes Prince William’s London home.

If that doesn’t offer a lesson to other countries, and especially France, then nothing will.

 

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion

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