Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei is facing calls for his resignation over the handling of heat-related deaths amid criticism that the government did not react quickly enough to avoid the crisis.
The health ministry has estimated that between 1,600 to 3,000 people — mostly elderly — died from heat-related causes starting on Aug. 7 as Europe was hit by a record heat wave.
Last week, Patrick Pelloux, the head of France's emergency physicians' association and a leading critic of the government's response, said as many as 5,000 people could have died from heat stroke, dehydration and other effects of the withering heat.
Mattei, asked about the assertion on RTL radio, said: "It's a hypothesis — it's plausible — but it's only a hypothesis."
Doctors' groups and the Socialist opposition have taken aim at Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government, saying it did not react quickly enough to the prospect of heat-related deaths.
But lawmakers from the ruling UMP coalition have blamed a law enacted by Socialists when they were in power that limits France's working week to 35 hours. They say the law left medical centers and hospitals short-staffed at the height of the crisis.
The government has said many of the deaths were among elderly people left at home by family members who left on holiday. Much of France shuts down in August.
Earlier this month, parts of France suffered in temperatures of 104 degrees and higher, but temperatures have since cooled to more normal levels.
Last week, Mattei acknowledged "difficulties" for the government in managing the surge in temperatures, but said that hospital staffers were performing in an "exemplary" manner in response.
The government "carried out the responses that were needed" as soon as the first cases of heat-related death appeared about a week ago, Mattei said.
The government insists extra beds were put aside to treat victims of heat-related illnesses, and the Defense Ministry said military hospitals took patients from overburdened Paris hospitals.
Morgues and funeral directors have reported skyrocketing demand for their services since the heat wave took hold. General Funeral Services, France's largest undertaker, said it handled some 3,230 deaths from Aug. 4-10, compared to 2,300 on an average week in the year — a 37 percent jump.
Many people died in their apartments. One police officers' union in Paris called on the government to deploy the army to help retrieve bodies.
Many of the victims were elderly. Elderly people are often left alone in August when their families go on vacation.
According to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, over the past 20 years heat killed more Americans than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.
Within a five-day period, the 1995 Chicago heat wave killed between 525 and 726 people, depending on the method used for determining which deaths were attributable to the high temperatures. In the heat wave of 1980, some 1,250 Americans died. A heat wave earlier this year in India killed at least 1,200 people.