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Thousands still homeless in France

French floods
Thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes.

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Marseille one of the worst-hit cities. Gaven Morris reports
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ARLES, France (Reuters) -- Water levels have receded in southeastern France after floods that killed six people, but thousands were still unable to go home because water remained waist-high in some areas.

Harsh weather eased on Thursday and Friday after days of incessant rain and high winds that disrupted road, rail and air traffic along the Rhone river and left many homes covered with mud and debris. About 15,000 people left their homes.

"The fall in the Rhone's water level and the weather conditions in the last few hours allow us to be relatively optimistic," the prefecture in the southern town of Arles said.

In Arles, hundreds of people were forced to spend the night in schools or with friends. The northern parts of the town, about 60 km (38 miles) northwest of Marseille, were still under about one meter (3 ft ) of water.

Prison authorities planned to evacuate 193 inmates after water from the Rhone swamped the jail in Arles. Some prisoners had already been transferred from the ground floor to higher levels during the night.

"It's the first time extreme weather conditions have forced the evacuation of a prison of this kind," said Charles Margnier of the UFAP prison union. He said the prisoners would be sent to other jails in the region later on Friday.

People waded through water, mud and debris to assess the damage to their homes on Friday morning. In some places, they sifted through belongings ruined by the flooding.

A 37-year-old man who died on Thursday in his home in the town of Bellegarde near Nimes, about 100 km northwest of Marseille, was the sixth fatality of the floods. He fainted in his flooded basement and drowned.

Forecaster Meteo France on Thursday lifted its "Orange Alert" high risk warning across southern France.

President Jacques Chirac stopped off in the flooded southeast on Wednesday on his way to Tunisia. He announced 12 million euros ($14.5 million) of immediate aid to the region.

The floods brought back memories of 2001, when thousands of people in the Somme valley in northern France suffered the effects of flooding for months. Floods in 1999 killed 35 in Languedoc-Roussillon.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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