French football, rugby seasons off until September: PM

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Paris (AFP)

Professional football, rugby and other sports in France cannot resume until the end of the summer because of coronavirus restrictions, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Tuesday.

The announcement was made as the government unveiled its plans to gradually end the lockdown in France from May 11.

The announcement makes the completion of the 2019-2020 Ligue 1 football season and Top 14 rugby union campaign appear increasingly unlikely.

However France's sports ministry told AFP after the speech that sports fixtures could not take place even behind closed doors before the end of July, leaving open the possibility that some matches could still be played in August.

In an address to the National Assembly, Philippe said: "The 2019-2020 professional sports leagues, notably football, cannot yet restart.

"I would like to be precise here, no large sports gathering or any gathering of 5,000 people or more, needing the permission of the local police and long prior arrangements, will be allowed before September," Philippe added.

Ligue 1 had outlined its intention to resume matches in June, with players being recalled to training as of May 11.

The French football league will hold a teleconference later Tuesday to draw its conclusions from the government's announcement.

The president of one Ligue 1 club told AFP he believed the season would now be abandoned.

"It's highly likely that we stop it now," the president said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

If the season is abandoned, it begs the question of which teams would qualify for next season's Champions League and Europa League and whether teams would be relegated.

- 'At least things are clear' -

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet has said he hopes both the French Cup and League Cup finals can be played before the league season restarts, whenever that is.

Paris Saint-Germain are scheduled to face Lyon in the League Cup final and are then due to play Saint-Etienne in the French Cup final.

The co-president of the footballers' union, Sylvain Kastendeuch, described the government's announcement as responsible.

"The government understands that the economic crisis cannot be placed ahead of the public health one," he said in a statement.

French rugby union federation president Bernard Laporte said the announcement gave clubs clarity.

"I thought football would be allowed to restart behind closed doors, but I'm not surprised," Laporte said.

"But its a real headache (because) testing, social distancing, is even tougher in rugby," he said.

"It's clear now anyway, nothing until September."

- Tour de France crowds conundrum -

The Tour de France is however set to go ahead, albeit with restrictions on the number of spectators.

Organisers have already moved cycling's showpiece event from its traditional mid-summer slot and it is now scheduled to start in Nice on August 29.

The restrictions announced by the government will impact the number of people allowed to watch the race in any one place.

Huge crowds would normally be expected to gather at the start, and at the finish on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Tour de France organisers ASO limited crowds at the start of the Paris-Nice eight day race in February, where there was a restricted number of fans at the Versailles start and none at all at the finish and start lines after that.

Around 23,000 people have died so far of coronavirus-linked illnesses in France.

Schools and shops will re-open in May but restaurants and bars will remain closed for now, as will large museums, cinemas, theatres and concert halls.