Snapshot before lights out: France on the cusp of Covid-19 curfew

An empty terrace in Paris on October 5, 2020.
An empty terrace in Paris on October 5, 2020. © Lewis Joly, AP Photo

Revellers in major French cities were set for one last night out on Friday before a government-decreed curfew meant to stem the tide of the second wave of Covid-19 takes effect on Saturday. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the new rules, why the country has chosen to go down the curfew route now, and whether the famously convivial French are likely to accept the fresh anti-coronavirus measures.


France's curfew: Where, when, for whom?

From Saturday night, at 9pm local time and until 6am, "everyone should be in their homes", as Prime Minister Jean Castex put it, in the greater Paris area, or Ile-de-France region, and eight other metropolitan areas across the country: Aix-Marseille, Lyon, Saint-Étienne, Toulouse, Lille, Montpellier, Rouen and Grenoble. The curfews apply to nearly 20 million people – just under a third of the entire French population.

As during the country's two-month coronavirus lockdown from mid-March through May, those out after curfew will be required to carry an attestation (permit) providing a valid reason for the outing. The document, be it on paper or electronic, is valid for one hour for all but those venturing out for work.

France's Covid-19 curfew ("couvre-feu") map on October 15, 2020.
France's Covid-19 curfew ("couvre-feu") map on October 15, 2020. © French government Twitter account (@gouvernementFR)

Twelve thousand additional law enforcement officials will be deployed to enforce the curfew, with penalties ranging from a €135 fine for first-time curfew-breakers to up to six months in jail and a €3,750 fine for repeat offenders.

The curfew is slated to last a minimum of four weeks, although the government is expected to ask parliament to vote to extend the restrictions further. President Emmanuel Macron suggested on Wednesday that the curfew could be in place through to December 1.

What exemptions are there?

The rules allow for exceptions to visit a hospital, a pharmacy, a police station, to provide assistance to a close associate in need, to walk the dog or for professional reasons. Businesses are expected to close but there are allowances for establishments like hotels and delivery restaurants.

Travellers will be allowed to venture out for train journeys or flights, as long as they can provide their ticket with the time of travel as proof. Macron on Wednesday said France had made the choice not to restrict movement between French regions, even as French school holidays begin nationwide on Saturday.

Professional sport can go ahead during the curfew, with dispensations granted for professional athletes, although spectators will not be allowed at matches that take place after 9pm in the cities under curfew.

Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu on Friday shut down talk of exemptions for amateur sport. "We must be responsible in this situation. We must strongly support medical personnel and the people who will fall ill and who already have fallen ill with coronavirus and who are in hospital," Maracineanu told France Info on Friday. "Sport has been very well treated since the start of this crisis. We managed to have exceptions for certain groups, including children, who can keep going to clubs," she noted.

There has been discord, meanwhile, even within the government over exemptions some wanted for cultural pursuits. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said on Thursday that she would lobby the government for curfew exceptions for live performances in the French capital, where many shows conclude after 9pm. The National Federation of Cinemas raised the alarm over "extremely serious" consequences for moviehouses, already struggling this year, should they have to bring up the house lights by 9pm.

Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot, for her part, seemed amenable to wiggle room. "What they would like," Bachelot said of the culture sector on Thursday, "would be to instead consider that 9pm isn't the hour at which one has to be home but, for those who have a ticket to a play or for a film, the hour one leaves the theatre. That seems plausible to me," Bachelot said, pledging the government would look at the request.

But Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire decided against special treatment for culture. "What gives a rule strength is its clarity and its simplicity. If you start piling on exemptions... we won't get through this," Le Maire told BFM TV on Friday. "In politics, you need to have a single priority. I am against any exemption, except for healthcare personnel, for emergencies... for exceptional circumstances," he said.

PM Castex later settled the matter. There will be no exceptions for culture. "For rules to be understood, for rules to be accepted, they have to be the same for everybody," the prime minister told reporters at midday on Friday.

Why a curfew and why now?

Coronavirus cases have been rising exponentially in France. On Thursday, the country registered a record 30,621 new cases in 24 hours, passing the 30,000 daily case mark for the first time after first hitting 20,000 just six days before, on October 9. The positive test rate continues to rise, hitting 12.6 percent nationwide on Thursday. For the sake of comparison, neighbouring Germany has crossed the 7,000 daily case mark for the first time, it reported on Friday, while the United States reported 60,000 cases on Wednesday, its highest number since August 14.

In its latest weekly assessment, public health agency Santé Publique France noted that new cases were up 53 percent last week over the week before. "The strongest increases were observed among people over 45 years of age (age 45-64: +66.3 percent; age 65-74: +64.3 percent; age 75 and up: +63.6 percent)," the agency outlined on Thursday. It said cases among people aged 65 to 74 have tripled over the past six weeks and nearly quadrupled among those over 75. "This increase in the number of cases among older people is very worrying as these people are the most at risk for Covid-19 complications," the agency said.

In announcing the curfew regime on Wednesday, Macron pointed to "the relevance" of a curfew previously imposed in the overseas department of French Guiana to stem the coronavirus epidemic raging there after France as a whole came out of lockdown in May.

"The figures are indisputable: The curfew had massive effects on the circulation of the epidemic," Clara De Bort, who heads the Regional Health Agency (ARS) in French Guiana, told France Inter radio on Thursday.

The curfew in French Guiana, a South American neighbour to coronavirus-hotspot Brazil, went through numerous adjustments. It began in May as a curfew from 11pm to 5am. Meanwhile, restaurants and bars were only allowed to serve customers outdoors and schools, cinemas and places of worship remained closed – restrictions not in effect currently in mainland France. By the end of June, the curfew in French Guiana was in effect for 12 hours a day from 5pm to 5am on weekdays, and from 1pm onwards on Saturdays. On June 25, the territory shuttered its restaurants completely and closed its borders. It began relaxing the curfew in August, but restrictions remain in place today, with a midnight-to-5am curfew still in effect in most cities and towns in French Guiana five months on.

Back in Paris, Le Maire on Friday laid out the economic case for imposing a curfew in major cities in mainland France from Saturday, rather than returning to a full lockdown.

The economy minister said measures announced on Thursday to support the economy during the curfew total "€1 billon for the duration of the curfew", while subjecting the same nine urban areas to full lockdowns instead would cost €5 billion. A nationwide lockdown, meanwhile, would cost between €15 and €20 billion per month, Le Maire told BFM TV.

Will the French accept a curfew?

In a survey conducted immediately after Macron's curfew announcement on Wednesday, polling firm Harris Interactive found 70 percent of those asked approved of the measure and 94 percent were willing to respect the curfew, although fewer (78 percent) said they would respect it strictly and without making exceptions. Forty-eight percent said the new measures Macron announced Wednesday would be sufficient to stem the second wave of Covid-19 in France, but a majority (52 percent) believed they would not.

Indeed, some of the critics who slammed the new rules suggested they erred by omission. Politicians left and right alike questioned the urge to lockdown the country during the evening when, they argued, people appeared to be contracting coronavirus from known daytime interactions, at school or work, not subject to new rules. No new measures were announced, for instance, with relation to schools, where children under 11 are not required to wear face masks in France, despite tighter guidelines elsewhere. Working from home whenever possible, meanwhile, is not mandatory, despite regular social media appeals for stricter guidance appended with photos of crowded Paris métros at rush hour.

"Sixty percent of infections take place at work or at school or at university between 8am and 7pm. But Macron bans outings to the bar or restaurant between 8pm and 6am. Welcome to Absurdia," far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted after the curfew announcement.

The critique earned a quick retort from Health Minister Olivier Véran, who said Mélenchon was confusing diagnoses with clusters (groups of infections) and noted clusters only represent a small minority of the total infections. Indeed, as Le Monde reported, nine out of 10 coronavirus infections in France have not been traced back to any cluster and epidemiologists caution against extrapolating from cluster data for where they were contracted. In other words, confirmed clusters are just the tip of the iceberg and, epidemiologically speaking, it isn't clear what the rest of the iceberg looks like.

"It isn't idiotic to think that people contaminate themselves more in bars and restaurants than in companies where they are wearing masks all the time," Catherine Hill, an epidemiologist at the Institut Gustave Roussy in Villejuif, south of Paris, told AFP on Thursday. But, she said, "until we organise a mass screening by PCR or antigen test to quickly find contagious people and isolate them, we'll remain in the dark".

In the meantime, deciphering the effect that the 9pm-to-6am curfews have on Covid-19 in France will have to wait. The government has warned that their impact on the spread of the virus won't be clear for two to three weeks.

(With AFP and REUTERS)

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