NANTES – In anticipation of heavy snow and frost, the French national weather-forecasting service has declared a 'level orange' alert through Sunday for 36 departments.

The temperature has dropped precipitously across France this week as a cold front has swept in from eastern Europe.

The weather service, Météo France, expects especially heavy snow Friday night and Saturday along the length of the Rhine valley.

Saturday heavy snow and wind up to 110km/h are expected for the southern part of the central mountain range, the Massif Central; the storm is expected to sweep as far west as the Pyrénées Orientales.

While snowfall while be lighter to the north, the low temperature and high winds will still cause heavy frost through the Aquitaine, Charentes, Limousin, and has far north as southern Brittany.

Snow levels are predicted to reach five to 10 centimetres in most low-lying areas and as much as 30 centimetres above 500 metres.

Temperatures for Saturday morning are forecast from 0 to -5 degrees everywhere except the Côte d'Azur, where the mercury will probably register at least four degrees warmer.

'Orange' is the next to highest alert level indicating the need for extreme vigilance and possible local reaction to specific threats, such as the closing of some roads, the restriction of truck traffic — already in place in the Var, for example — or the opening of emergency shelters for the homeless.

The mayor of Paris already ordered, as of Thursday, the addition of 300 more beds to existing facilities for the homeless.

Drivers are recommended to carry heavy clothes or blankets in their cars to protect themselves in case their car breaks down.

The list of regions falling in the 'orange' alert zone include: Aquitaine, Languedoc-Roussillon, Limousin, Midi-Pyrénées, Poitou-Charentes, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Ardèche, Cantal, Drôme, Isère, Loire, Haute-Loire, Puy-de-Dôme, Rhône, Saône-et-Loire and the Vaucluse.

The cold snap has already claimed dozens of lives in other European countries, including seven in Germany since last week and 39 in the Ukraine in one mere 24-hour period.

The arrival of truly glacial cold, however, does nothing to calm meteorologists' fears of a dry winter; based on October-December 2005 rainfall, Météo France also warned last week of an even more severe drought for 2006 than that of 2005, which was the driest year for some three decades.