Sale of Covid-19 masks in French supermarkets sparks controversy

An employee controls health protection masks in a production chain of a Kolmi-Hopen factory, on February 1, 2020, in Saint-Barthelemy-d'Anjou, western France.
An employee controls health protection masks in a production chain of a Kolmi-Hopen factory, on February 1, 2020, in Saint-Barthelemy-d'Anjou, western France. © Loïc Venance, AFP

French supermarkets have promised to put millions of masks on sale to protect against Covid-19. Some health professionals are asking for an explanation about these deliveries after weeks of shortages and rationing. 


The controversy keeps growing: On May 4, millions of single-use masks went on sale in France in supermarket chains. The announcement by Agnès Pannier-Runacher, secretary of state to the minister of the economy and finance, provoked the indignation of many health professionals, who have been calling for more masks for weeks.

Supermarkets, with the support of the government, are defending themselves against accusations that they have been stockpiling them.

Seven associations for health professionals, including those for doctors, midwives and nurses, expressed their “dismay” in a letter on April 30 over the sale of thousands of masks in supermarkets, authorised against a backdrop of “shortages” for health professionals.

“How is it possible that our carers have not been able to be equipped with masks when we are announcing with great fanfare the staggering figures of masks on sale to the public?” they asked.

The healthcare representatives are particularly upset that millions of surgical masks, which are more effective in protecting against the virus, will be sold in supermarkets.

“No one would have criticised mass distribution channels for distributing consumer masks to the general public. That would have been a useful addition to the arsenal of defense against the virus,” they wrote.

‘Growing indecency’

It was less the initiative than the quantity of masks promised in supermarkets that made the signatories of the letter snap: “100 million here, 50 million there. What could be better?” they wrote, denouncing a “growing indecency”.

The Leclerc supermarket cooperative expects to receive an order of 170 million masks, the cooperative's president, Michel Edouard Leclerc, said on the BFMTV cable news channel on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Carrefour supermarket chain CEO Alexandre Bompard announced Wednesday that his group had secured some 225 million masks for the coming weeks, including 175 million surgical masks and 50 million textile masks, and Système U's president, Dominique Schelcher, told France Info radio that the chain would distribute roughly 15 million masks.

>>> How to make your own face mask to protect against the coronavirus

The supermarket groups are committed to selling these surgical and consumer masks at cost or at a low margin. While the price of single-use masks may not exceed €0.95 per unit under the ceiling set by the government, the price of masks for the general public is not regulated because of the diversity of models.

The supermarkets have strenuously defended themselves against accusations that they had built up “hidden stocks” of masks. 

“I think it's disgusting because it breaks the bond that has been built between health workers and the economic world,” Leclerc said in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, deeming the controversy “null, childish, sterile”.

“It's defamation to say that Leclerc or Système U hid the masks in basements while others needed them. We have to stop the nonsense,” he added. “The masks are arriving now, so this idea of hidden stocks, of stockpiling, these are bad, made-up scenarios.”

Schelcher tweeted, "The situation is simple: our orders for surgical masks for sale to the public date from April 24, the day the government authorized them. Before that, we had just enough to protect our teams.”

“This controversy over masks is senseless and unfounded,” he added.

Upcoming deliveries, not hidden mask stocks

As the storm of controversy escalates, the government is trying to calm things down. In an interview with the dailies Le Parisien and Aujourd'hui En France, Health Minister Olivier Véran said the “mass retailers do not really have mask stocks and have simply announced upcoming deliveries for the time being”.

By refuting the existence of hidden stocks, Véran hopes to reassure healthcare workers. “My priority is [that they] have surgical masks. Supermarkets may sell their stocks as long as this condition is respected.… We're coming out of a period when healthcare workers didn't always have access to a sufficient quantity of masks. So I understand their feelings and even their anger," he said.

Secretary of State for Transport Jean-Baptiste Djebbari also sought to ease tensions by explaining how the masks have been ordered. “As of two days ago, we had received about 500 million masks since the start of the airlift. Of these, half were state-ordered and the other half came from supermarket chains.... All the orders placed a few weeks ago are arriving now and they have to go through customs,” he said on France 3 television.

Djebbari said the situation has also changed since the beginning of the lockdown. “Today's circumstances are not the same as a few weeks ago,” when imports “struggled to arrive” to meet the demands of the caregivers, he said.

Call for inquiry

Some politicians, unconvinced by these explanations, have jumped into the debate. Senator Nathalie Delattre, a member of the centrist Radical Movement representing the Gironde, has called for a commission of inquiry to be set up.

“Either supermarkets have infinitely superior striking power than the state and managed to obtain so many masks in so little time, in which case the commission will have to shed full light on the inadequacies of the national decision-making chain,” she wrote in a letter to Senate President Gérard Larcher, given to AFP, “or supermarkets are making a mockery of the French people's health and will have to answer this: How many lives could have been saved if these stocks had been distributed rather than stored while waiting to be sold?” 

Renaud Muselier, president of the center-right party Les Républicains in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, threatened in a tweet to file a “complaint for the endangering of lives and failure to assist a person in danger”. He gave the supermarkets three days "to prove that they did not have a secret stock of masks during the crisis”.

Another detractor of the retail chains is Damien Abad, leader of the Les Réublicans deputies. He castigated the government for its “lack of foresight”, charging that it has been “replaced by supermarkets”. 

Matthieu Orphelin, the Maine-et-Loire deputy and former Macron supporter,  and Yannick Jadot, leader of the ecologists, asked that healthcare workers be given priority in receiving the masks intended for mass distribution.

In principle, healthcare workers and ordinary citizens should now be able to get the masks they need when lockdown ends on May 11. “There will be enough masks for all French people,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe promised on April 28 when he presented the plan to loosen the lockdown.

This article has been translated from the original French.


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