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France charts 'risky' return to life after lockdown

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announcing the plan to gradually lift the coronavirus lockdown
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announcing the plan to gradually lift the coronavirus lockdown David NIVIERE POOL/AFP
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Paris (AFP)

France will begin a gradual but "risky" return to normality on May 11, with shops, markets and some schools reopening after an eight-week coronavirus lockdown that saved over 60,000 lives, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Tuesday.

But life will not be as before, with face masks compulsory on public transport, working from home strongly encouraged for several more weeks, and restaurants and cafes -- quintessential to the French way of life -- remaining shuttered.

The French people "will have to learn to live with the virus", said Philippe, urging strict, ongoing respect of social distancing and personal hygiene measures to limit new infections to a minimum, with no vaccine or proven treatment yet available.

At the same time, France cannot afford an "indefinite" lockdown, said Philippe.

Non-essential businesses have been closed since March 17, and people confined to their homes except for urgent business.

"We must protect the French without immobilising France to the point that it collapses," Philippe told the National Assembly, which will vote on his proposed measures.

It is necessary, the premier said, to "gradually, cautiously, but also resolutely proceed with lifting the lockdown, as long-awaited as it is risky."

- Fine line -

The government was treading a fine line, he added. "A little too much carelessness, and the epidemic restarts. A little too much caution, and the entire country sinks."

Only 75 of the assembly's 577 lawmakers were present for the premier's address, with several empty seats between them, in line with virus-busting social-distancing measures.

More than 23,000 deaths had been reported in France by Monday, with a downward trend in the number of people in hospital and intensive care in recent days.

Philippe quoted a study showing that the French lockdown had prevented 62,000 deaths in a month, and obviated demand for over 100,000 intensive care hospital beds.

But it has also struck a deep blow to the economy, with a historic contraction of eight percent in economic output predicted for this year and unemployment rising a record 7.1 percent in March.

- 'Firm request' -

The prime minister said retailers and fresh produce markets can reopen from May 11, when the easing of the lockdown officially starts, with strict distancing measures to prevent too many people in once place at the same time.

But restaurants and bars will remain closed for now, as will large museums, cinemas, theatres and concert halls.

Primary schools and daycare centres can reopen progressively from May 11, followed by junior high schools the following week, though only in areas not hard-hit by the epidemic.

There can be no more than 15 pupils to a class, the prime minister said.

A decision will be made by the end of May on when to reopen restaurants, cafes and all high schools.

Philippe said public parks and gardens can open in areas with no active virus circulation, but beaches will remain off-limits until June 1.

People who have the option of working from home should continue to do so after May 11, at least for three weeks, and Philippe issued a "firm request" to companies to respect this directive.

For those who have no choice, limited public transport will be available, but users will be obliged to wear face masks, said Philippe.

Long-distance travel will be discouraged.

- Lockdown can be extended -

Distribution of face masks, which have been in short supply and limited to medical personnel, will be expanded with sales to the general public. France will be receiving 100 million surgical masks and some 20 million reusable, non-medical grade masks each week, said the premier.

He said there will be enough masks for all who need them and a national capacity to conduct some 700,000 viral tests per week.

Those who test positive will be isolated, and people they have been in contact with will be traced and also tested.

No religious ceremonies allowed before June 2, said Philippe. Funerals will remain limited to 20 people, and weddings will continue to be put off for now.

All gatherings, whether in public places or private homes, must be limited to 10 people, he added.

The prime minister warned the lockdown could be extended at the last minute, and urged people to continue observing confinement rules so as not to unleash a new infection wave.

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