France to unveil steps to lift virus lockdown

Paris (AFP) –


France will unveil Tuesday how it intends to progressively lift a six-week lockdown credited with checking the coronavirus outbreak, likely allowing schools to reopen even as restaurants and cafes remain shut.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will detail the government's roadmap in an address to parliament from 1300 GMT, treading a fine line between kickstarting an economy in crisis while avoiding a second epidemic wave.

Philippe's address will be followed by a debate and a vote, with just 75 of the 577 lawmakers allowed into the National Assembly in line with social distancing measures.

The rest will vote by proxy.

President Emmanuel Macron, whose LREM party holds a majority in parliament, announced that the lockdown would be lifted from May 11, but the details remained vague.

Along with Britain, Italy and Spain, France is one of the European countries worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the death toll reaching 23,293 by Monday.

But encouraging signs have started to emerge, with the number of patients in intensive care and in hospital steadily falling for several days.

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

But despite the imperative of getting the economy back on track, the government is confronted with the risk of a second wave of infections threatening hospital capacity and life in France will be nowhere near back to normal from May 11.

- 'Controlled and progressive' -

Hard-hit restaurants and cafes will likely remain shut and the government is not expected to annonce before the end of May when they can reopen.

However, Macron has said schools could gradually reopen from May 11, unlike in Italy, which is keeping them shut until September.

This has proved controversial, with the government's own scientific council saying it favoured schools remaining closed for several more months.

The council has advised 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 fierce criticism over stock shortfalls, the government has said France would make more than 26 million re-usable, non-medical grade face masks available for purchase by the public by the end of this week.

France has a population of 67 million.

Ahead of Tuesday's vote, the right-wing Les Republicains party said its MPs will not support Philippe's plans for lifting the lockdown, while the far-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) and the Socialist Party have said ending confinement must be conditional on the government providing free masks for all.

Philippe is expected to announce that certain retailers will be allowed to open -- joining supermarkets and other essential service providers that continued operating throughout the lockdown -- and to relax restrictions on travel between cities.