Mattei told the Journal de Dimanche newspaper that he had been shocked by the crisis which saw temperatures and deaths sky-rocket between 1 and 15 August.

Temperatures that exceeded 40 degrees Celsius affected pensioners the worst.

"A doctor never resigns when confronted with patients," Mattei, a trained doctor, told the paper. "I was deeply wounded and shocked by these deaths because I have spent my life fighting against death."

But Mattei was vague when asked about the government’s actions and responsibility for the crisis.

“We must be transparent. I have nothing to hide,” he added.

Left-wing groups have blamed the Jacques Chirac’s centre-right government for service cuts which reduced available resources for the elderly.

"A doctor never resigns when confronted with patients"

Jean-Francois Mattei
French Health Minister

But Mattei took aim at France’s social fabric, suggesting families were to blame.

"What is also intolerable is the stark revelation of a social fracture, of the isolation of the elderly. This should force us to examine our consciences as individuals and collectively," Mattei said.

Many French people take their main summer holiday in August, and some have suggested that vulnerable parents may have been left without support while their offspring were on vacation.

Seventy-five bodies in Paris have still not been claimed by relatives, police said on Saturday.

Mattei also compared current and past demographical statistics to cite another reason for the scale of the toll.

The minister said that the number of very old people had tripled over the last 30 years, thereby increasing the proportion of people that would be most vulnerable to extreme temperatures.

According to the Inserm national medical research institute, there were 3,000 heat-related deaths during a 1976 drought and 4,700 deaths during a 1983 hot spell.