‘We won’t paralyse the country’: What are France’s plans to deal with coronavirus?

As the number of recorded cases of coronavirus in France continues to rise and authorities say an epidemic is highly likely, will the country end up on lockdown with quarantines and curfews in place?

'We won't paralyse the country': What are France's plans to deal with coronavirus?
Photo: AFP

The French government has already taken several measures to control the spread of coronavirus, but the question many of our readers are asking is about quarantines or lockdowns – are they likely to be introduced?

Where is on lockdown?

Even in Italy – the European country by far the worst affected by coronavirus – the whole country is not on lockdown by any means.

The Italian government has brought in far-reaching quarantine restrictions, but only in the northern part of the country. 

The rest of the country has no such restriction, although large gatherings including football matches have been cancelled or forced to take place behind closed doors, schools closed and elderly people – who seem most vulnerable to the virus – advised to stay at home.

Several other European countries including France have taken similar precautions – large gatherings cancelled and people advised to take basic health precautions and stop shaking hands or kissing.

But for the most part life continues as normal – transport is still running, people are going to work, the majority of schools remain open.

So what's the situation now in France?

Only people who have travelled to an affected zone or been in contact with a confirmed case need to self isolate or wear a mask. Photo: AFP

At present France is in stage 2 – pre-epidemic – and the government has brought in some measures to try and contain the spread of the virus.

They are:

  • Gatherings of more than 5,000 people in enclosed spaces are banned. At this stage football games are continuing and the organisers of the Six Nations rugby tournament say that the France v Ireland game will go ahead in Paris as planned on March 14th. The Paris marathon has been postponed
  • Schools, colleges and nurseries in the two worst-affected départements – Oise and Haut-Rhin – are closed but in the remaining 94 départements are open as normal.
  • Surgical masks can no longer be bought over the counter. After a spate of panic-buying the government has requisitioned mask stocks and will distribute them to those who need them – medical professionals, people who have the virus or people who are self isolating
  • Anyone recently returned from the Lombardy, Veneto or Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy is asked to self isolate for 14 days, along with people recently returned from China (including Hong Kong and Macau), South Korea or Iran
  • People are advised not to shake hands or kiss

Everyone in France should also be following this basic hygiene advice

  • Wash hands your thoroughly and often with soap and water, especially after coughing and sneezing or before eating or it you have been touching surfaces that many other people will have touched such as on the Metro
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, especially with unwashed hands.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing. Cover your mouth with your elbow when coughing
  • Use disposable tissues and throw them away after use
  • Clean off surfaces with alcohol- or chlorine-based disinfectants.

The French government has set up a “green number” that people can call for any non-medical coronavirus-related questions. The line will be open all week from 8am until 9pm.

The number is 0 800 130 000. There are also daily updates on its website here.

There are also several 'cluster zones' in France which have a high number of cases and in those areas the restrictions are a little more stringent:

  • All public gatherings, including markets, weddings, community group meetings and church services are banned
  • Schools in certain towns are closed

And what's likely to happen next?

The French government is having regular meetings on the latest coronavirus developments. Photo: AFP

France is currently in the pre-epidemic stage, but ministers have been saying for some days that moving to stage 3 – a full epidemic – is highly likely.

While this sounds quite dramatic, it's worth pointing out that France regularly declares an epidemic of seasonal illnesses such as flu and gastro and the country has in fact been at epidemic level for flu since the start of February.

READ ALSO What happens is France officially declares a coronavirus epidemic?

Nevertheless, the epidemic designation does raise the possibility of more stringent restrictions on everyday life.

These will be decided on the basis of need and it's likely that only some areas of France will be affected, but some of the things that could happen are:

Ban on all public gatherings – this is already the case in the four cluster zones and the measures could be extended to other parts of the country

Closing schools and universities – at present the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, says this would not be necessary even if France does move to stage 3. It is likely that would happen only in areas that have particularly high concentrations of illness. Many regions of France have only a handful of cases at present.

Travel restrictions – at present there are no travel restrictions and transport minister Elisabeth Borne says there is “no question” of stopping the trains from running. Public transport in cities such as Paris is currently running as normal but there is provision within the emergency planning to introduce restrictions if necessary. 

Flights in and out of the country are also running as normal, although the French government has advised its citizens against non-essential travel, particularly outside the EU. British Airways has cancelled a number of flight to France, although this is due to falling demand not to health restrictions, and Air France said anyone worried about coronavirus can cancel their flights free of charge.

Healthcare planning – by far the greatest concentration among authorities is making sure that the country's health system is prepared to cope with a large number of cases with extra funding, opening of new sections of hospitals and enacting existing emergency plans. If stage 3 is declared patients with less serious conditions could be discharged from hospital and non-emergency operations could be postponed.

READ ALSO The everyday precautions you can take to stay safe in France

What's the message from the top?

France's leaders are also keen to keep the country functioning as normally as possible.

Health minister Olivier Véran on Friday told French newspaper Libération: “We will not paralyse the economic and social life of the country.

“When the epidemic is here, it is above all a question of organising the emergency and care systems, and ensuring the continuity of state services, without preventing citizens from living.”

Extra restrictions will be decided on a regional level, he added.

While all 12 mainland regions of France have at least one case, some have reported very small numbers.

It's also worth pointing out that French administrative regions are pretty big – for example Nouvelle Aquitaine is roughly the same size as the country of Scotland – so it's highly likely that only certain parts of each region would be subject to the restrictions.

Authorities say there are currently no plans for widespread quarantine or lockdown measures.

Government spokesman Sibeth Ndiaye reiterated: “Life in the country won't stop because of coronavirus.”



Member comments

  1. Instead of pussy footing about it needs a country to have some balls and stop all gatherings over 10 persons, close all schools etc, stop all travel in and out of the country. Instead of using a sticking plaster instead of a bandage. France should get of it’s arse and set an example.

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French lawmakers push for abortion rights to be enshrined in constitution

After the seismic decision of the US Supreme Court on Friday, French MPs are calling for the right to abortion in France to be protected by the constitution.

French lawmakers push for abortion rights to be enshrined in constitution

Lawmakers from French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party are to propose a parliamentary bill on Saturday that would enshrine the right to abortion in the constitution. 

The move comes after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 “Roe v. Wade” decision on Friday.

“In France we guarantee and advance the rights of women. We protect them,” said Aurore Bergé – the head of Renaissance in the Assemblée nationale and one of the key sponsors of the bill. 

Another co-sponsor, Marie-Pierre Rixain tweeted: “What happens in elsewhere cannot happen in France. We must protect the right to abortion for future generations. 

In 2018 and 2019, Emmanuel Macron’s party – which back then was known as La République en Marche – refused to back bills proposed by left-wing party, La France Insoumise, to enshrine abortion rights into the constitution. 

In a Saturday interview with France Inter, Bergé suggested that the success of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National during parliamentary elections earlier this month had created a sense of newfound urgency. 

She described the far-right MPs as “fierce opponents of women’s access to abortion” and said it was important “to take no risk” in securing it. 

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French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has come out in support of the bill. 

The left-wing opposition block, NUPES, also backs it and had planned to propose an identical piece legislation of its own on Monday. 

Macron is seeking parliamentary allies to pass reforms after his formation lost its majority in legislative elections earlier this month.

The legal timeframe to terminate a pregnancy in France was extended from 12 to 14 weeks in the last legislature.

Changing the constitution requires the National Assembly and Senate to adopt the same text, then a three-fifths majority of parliament sitting in congress. The other option is a referendum.