France sticks by plan to ease lockdown despite mayors’ ‘forced march’ concerns

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe presents the government's coronavirus lockdown easing plan to before the Senate, May 4, 2020.
French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe presents the government's coronavirus lockdown easing plan to before the Senate, May 4, 2020. © France 24 screengrab

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Monday stood by a plan to begin easing the country's coronavirus lockdown May 11 despite concerns the government is moving too fast to reopen schools as well as doubts over the availability of face masks.


France is due on May 11 to emerge from a lockdown to combat the coronavirus that began on March 17, with kindergartens and primary schools to re-open as part of a staggered easing process.

"This confinement was necessary to meet the emergency, but its social and economic cost is colossal," Philippe told senators while laying out his government's strategy.

"We're at a decisive moment, we cannot remain in confinement," he said. "Economic life must resume imperatively and quickly."

But officials have drawn fire from critics who say the country is not ready to cope with the strict social distancing and other protective measures that will be required after May 11 to avoid a flare-up of the epidemic.

France's Covid-19 death toll topped 25,000 on Monday with 306 people dying from the disease in 24 hours, according to health officials. The number of hospitalisations and ICU admissions has been falling in France for more than two weeks.

In a symbolic display of its objection, the French Senate on Monday evening voted against the plan in an 89-81 vote with 174 abstentions.  

Paris area mayors slam 'forced march' 

On Sunday, more than 300 mayors from the greater Paris region, including Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, penned an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron urging him to delay school returns, saying they need more time for the vast reorganisation of classrooms and daily routines.

Among the myriad new measures is a limit of just 15 students per class, which could require teachers to ensure distance learning for those unable to come to school.

"Preparations for the end of the lockdown are being imposed at a forced march, even though we still lack the necessary information," the mayors wrote.

Officials in other regions -- in particular the hard-hit northeastern quarter of France -- have also said they will not open up schools next week.

But Philippe said the school closures had been a "catastrophe for the most vulnerable children and adolescents", adding that academic failure and dropouts risked becoming a "time bomb".

In a shift from last week, however, he said face masks would be required for secondary students only in cases where sufficient social distancing cannot be ensured.

Macron said final details of the post-lockdown plan would be unveiled Thursday, adding that he "understood all the worries".

Lifting the lockdown is "an indispensable step" but "it's not a return to normal", he said, while announcing that France would contribute €500 million to the international hunt for a vaccine.

Criticisms over face mask supplies

The government is also facing fresh criticism over its policies on face masks, which officially went on sale to the public Monday -- even though people across France have managed to procure them despite the requisition of all stocks and production since March.

Philippe rejected claims by health workers who have accused retailers of building up stocks, even as many hospitals are still scrambling to secure enough to cope with the wave of Covid-19 cases.

"There were never any hidden stocks: Huge orders were placed, and it takes a certain amount of time before they can be made available," he told the Senate.

As masks went on sale to the general public, however, criticism shifted to the prices being asked for both disposable surgical masks as well as washable fabric versions.

"Let's say a surgical masks costs 60 cents, and you need three per day to use them correctly -- for a family of four that's 7.20 euros a day, so you'd be spending more than 200 euros [216 euros] a month," said Alain Bazot, president of the UFC-Que Choisir consumer group.

If you add in the costs of sanitising hand gel, "that's not possible", he told AFP.

German Montes, a Chilean who lives in France and who had just bought masks outside a grocery store in Rosny-sous-Bois, north of Paris, complained: "They're making profits during a pandemic, it's just crazy."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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