France dispatches free Covid-19 face masks to 7 million amid hardship concerns

Face masks are mandatory in France as of Monday in closed public spaces with offenders subject to a €135 fine. And while the fact of donning a mask to stymie the spread of coronavirus isn't the political issue in France that it has become in some countries, the new and sudden financial burden of stocking up on the basic protective equipment has come up for debate. As a result, 40 million masks are in the mail for seven million whom the state considers most in need.

A protective face mask filled with banknotes in Paris, on July 21, 2020.
A protective face mask filled with banknotes in Paris, on July 21, 2020. © Joël Saget, AFP

Consumer groups, anti-poverty associations and left-wing political parties alike sounded the alarm this week over the high cost of masking up in France as closed public spaces like shops became inaccessible to anyone unequipped. Emmanuel Macron addressed the matter on Tuesday, pledging the state would come to the aid of the poorest, but stopping short of footing the bill for everybody. "It is not up to the State — and the French taxpayer — to pay for masks... for everyone, all the time," the French president told TF1 on Tuesday. "So I think it should remain a social-aid policy," he added.

Health Minister Olivier Véran on Wednesday elaborated on the president's pledge, saying a flurry of masks would be mailed out "within only a few days". "We will send out 40 million washable masks for the general public, usable 30 times each, to furnish seven million French people who are on the poverty line... in such a way as to not have to require any formalities from them," Véran said. "It is evident that France will leave no one incapable of equipping themselves with masks," he said. The minister also noted that two million French people with health vulnerabilities would see their surgical masks "100 percent" reimbursed by public health insurance.

Costly for families

The government had already set an upper limit on the price of surgical masks at €0.95 per masks, a measure that has been extended through to January 2021. But this week Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire agreed that "that can indeed represent a considerable cost for some families".

The French daily Le Parisien on Monday published figures underlining the cost for a family of four. Accounting for two masks per person per day, one month's supply of surgical masks came to 228 euros. Using washable masks instead came to 96 euros a month.

Public health players had expressed some concern over the outlay required. "The cost of this measure [making masks mandatory], even though it is indispensable, is not negligeable for citizens," Jean-Paul Hamon, who heads France's Federation of Doctors, told L'Express.

As the new rule came into effect on Monday, far-left La France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon took the opportunity to point out that his party's lawmakers had proposed a bill to make masks free as early as April 28. "If masks are mandatory, they must be free," he tweeted. "Come on, LREM, vote usefully for once!" he added, referring to Macron's majority La République en Marche party.

The CLCV consumer group on Monday issued a call for "financial aid of 50 euros per month and per person" to the poorest of families to meet the need for mandatory face masks.

"People shouldn't have to choose between protecting themselves and feeding themselves. Mandatory masks, yes! Free of charge, too!" tweeted Thomas Portes of the Conféderation Nationale du Logement, an anti-poverty group, arguing that free masks "must be the norm" given they are a "public health tool".

Virus 'numbers are not good'

The president of the scientific panel advising the government on Covid-19 matters has also suggested it is important to help defray the cost of pandemic-fighting measures. In remarks to RMC-BFMTV on Tuesday, Jean-François Delfraissy noted that the coronavirus "numbers are not good [in France], they are worrisome" even though "none of the indicators is totally in the red."

Delfraissy said the new mandatory mask rule was "indispensable", calling it "striking to see that the French have lost the main notions of distancing, of great precaution." He also said he was worried about the "most precarious populations", noting that the suburbs north of Paris, the dense and less than affluent Seine-Saint-Denis department, had been "more affected than other departments". He said health authorities were working to "simplify access to tests" in order to "render them easier and totally free of charge" and said the issue of free masks and tests was a "discussion that would be put on the table in the days to come".

On Wednesday, Valérie Pécresse, the president of the Ile-de-France region (the greater Paris area, which includes Seine-Saint-Denis), outlined plans to provide free masks to charity groups and students. "It is a big budget for families to have to buy masks every day. That's why the Ile-de-France region is going to ensure free masks for all of the charity associations who are partnered with the region," she told France 2. "Moreover, when school starts again, we will take care of high schoolers and provide two [washable] fabric masks" to each of the region's "500,000 high school students".

While Macron said Tuesday that it wasn't the role of the French taxpayer to pick up the tab of free masks for all, regardless of their means, the president did suggest there would be plenty of costs for the state to bear in the coming months to stem the coronavirus crisis. "Our role, we the French and with the Europeans, is to secure our stocks in the period to come, the production —whether it be of masks for the general public, masks for carers — but also ventilators, pharmaceutical products we need and our capacity to produce a vaccine," Macron said. 

(with AFP)

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