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France to reveal plans on how Covid-19 lockdown will be eased

French Ministers and Deputies attend the weekly session of questions to the government at the National Assembly in Paris, France, March 31, 2020.
French Ministers and Deputies attend the weekly session of questions to the government at the National Assembly in Paris, France, March 31, 2020. © Yoan Valat/Pool via REUTERS

France will on Tuesday reveal how it plans on May 11 to lift its six-week-old lockdown to combat the coronavirus, with cafes set to stay shut but schools controversially being allowed to reopen.

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Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will unveil the measures in an address to parliament from 1300 GMT, with the government seeking to tread a fine course between the need to kick-start the economy out of crisis while preserving public health.

His announcement will be followed by a debate and a vote, with just 75 of the 577 deputies allowed into the National Assembly in order to respect social distancing, while all others will vote by proxy.

President Emmanuel Macron announced earlier this month that the lockdown would be lifted from May 11 but he left the details relatively vague.

Along with Britain, Italy and Spain, France has been one of the European countries worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the latest death toll standing at 23,293.

But more encouraging signs have emerged in recent days, with the numbers of patients in intensive care and in hospital falling steadily.

The government has warned that France faces a historic contraction of eight percent in growth this year while March unemployment registered a record 7.1 percent rise.

But despite the imperatives of getting the economy back on its feet, the government is well aware of the risk of a second wave of infection, and French life will be nowhere near back to normal on May 11.

'Controlled and progressive' 

Unlike Italy, which is keeping schools shut until September, France is expected to restart education after Macron said schools could gradually reopen from May 11.

But this has proved controversial; the government's own scientific council said it favoured schools reopening only in the autumn while insisting it also acknowledged the "political" decision of the government to reopen them earlier.

"The scientific council is there to give a certain amount of information, but it is the political authority that decides," its head Jean-Francois Delfraissy told AFP.

The council has said there should be a "progressive and controlled easing of the confinement". 

Another issue that will be closely watched is whether the wearing of masks will become obligatory on public transport, which is expected to ramp up capacity from May 11.

After facing fierce criticism over the lack of stocks of sanitary masks, the government has said France plans to make more than 26 million non-medical face masks available for purchase by the end of this week.

Some more shops will likely be allowed to reopen, while it is possible that people will again be allowed to move freely between cities.

However, hard-hit restaurants and cafes will remain firmly shut, and the government is not expected to tell them until the end of May when they can reopen. 

"The virus does not like the French way of life," Macron told a meeting of industry representatives last week that included star chefs.

(AFP)

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