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French Prime Minister to unveil plan to ease lockdown: What can we expect?

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will on Tuesday present to parliament his detailed plan for gradually loosening France's strict lockdown, so what can we expect?

French Prime Minister to unveil plan to ease lockdown: What can we expect?
France's Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will present his plan to parliament on Tuesday. All photos: AFP

Since President Emmanuel Macron announced on Easter Monday that France's lockdown will start to be lifted from May 11th, ministries have all been working on more detailed plans.

These have now been put together into an overall strategy that addresses 17 key points about lifting lockdown, from stimulating the economy to protecting the elderly.

This plan will be presented to the French parliament on Tuesday afternoon, after which it will be debated and voted upon.

So what can we expect?

Businesses

Like all countries, France is attempting to balance protecting its citizens with limiting the damage to its economy so one of the big things about May 11th will be the return of a lot more people to work.

It is expected there will be more details about which sectors or businesses types can return straight away.

We already know that cafés, bars and restaurants will not be reopening until later but many other tourist related businesses – such as gites and B&Bs where social distancing is possible – are still unsure when they can reopen.

READ ALSO When will France's bars, restaurants and tourism businesses reopen?

 

The Scientific Council advising the government has said that companies should, where possible, keep people working from home “for all or more than half of working time”.

The Council also recommends scrupulous social distancing in the workplace, suggesting that only part of the workforce is on site at any one time, to maintain distancing rules.

Staggered shifts or part time working could be required for larger companies.

Schools

This is probably the area we know most about after some detailed interviews with the education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer but some questions remain.

Schools will open gradually from May 11th, with certain classes going before others – see the full plan here.

Teaching unions have expressed concern over supplies of masks and hand sanitiser gel and although the minister says it is “highly probable” that masks will be compulsory, that has not yet been confirmed.

The Scientific Council also recommends extra provision for school transport, so pupils are less crowded.

Masks

At present masks are advised – although they are hard to get hold of – but not compulsory.

Both Macron and the Scientific Council have said that wearing masks should be “systematic' in public after May 11th, although they have stopped short of saying they will become compulsory.

However it's possible that they could become compulsory on public transport – both the Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and the head of the city's RATP transport network have requested this.

Travel

The Scientific Council says that travel between regions of France could be allowed, provided that public transport companies can ensure appropriate social distancing.

This echoes a statement from the president's Elysée Palace last week which said it was “working to ensure there would be no problem travelling between regions”.

There had been speculation that the restrictions would be lifted on a regional basis, but the president appeared to quash that idea, although local authorities will likely still have some leeway to react to local conditions.

The Council recommends that urban and suburban transport resume as normal as people go back to work and transport bosses on both the national SNCF rail network and the Paris public transport network have already laid out plans for a rapid increase in services from May 11th.

International travel

Travel into France from other countries is currently heavily restricted – an international travel certificate is required and only essential travel allowed – and it seems that may continue for some months yet.

The Scientific Council strongly discourages loosening restrictions before summer in order to “reduce the risk of reintroduction of the virus on national territory”.

However no more detailed timeframe has been suggested.

Various French ministers, in answer to questions about summer holidays in July or August, have advised French people not to plan foreign holidays.

However it is not known whether travel restrictions will remain in place for all journeys or for all types of transport.

France has its own domestic border restrictions but it is also part of an EU-wide ban on travel from outside the Schengen Zone – so discussions ongoing in Brussels will also affect travel into France from outside Europe.

READ ALSO When will I be able to travel to France again?

Over 70s and other vulnerable groups

A suggestion from Macron that the over 70s, people with underlying health conditions and others in high-risk groups should stay in confinement was greeted with outrage by many, and now seems to have been toned down to a voluntary confinement.

The Scientific Council advises a “strict and voluntary” confinement of those in high risk groups – which it categorises as people aged over 65, in contrast to earlier health measures which were aimed at the over 70s, and those with chronic conditions including hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

It said that people in those groups who work should be given the option of working from home or signing off on sick leave.

Macron has since called for “individual responsibility” in relation to vulnerable groups, but with no vaccine in sight and the over 65s making up nearly 90 percent of the deaths in France many may be faced with taking extra precautions for some time to come.

 

Exercise

The Sports Ministry has published a plan that includes restrictions on individual exercise such as jogging cycling and walking being lifted from May 11th, although it is not known whether the government has accepted this recommendation.

Local restrictions – such as the ban on daytime jogging in Paris – could be left in place.

Bars/cafés/restaurants

We already know that these will not be reopening from May 11th and ministers have previously said that a date for their reopening will not be announced until the end of May.

Business owners may have to be able to demonstrate that they can ensure social distancing can be respected before they are allowed to reopen.

Public gatherings and sports matches

It has always been clear that large public gatherings will be among the last things to return, and Macron has laid out a tentative date for this of mid July.

As well as festivals and concerts this also applies to sports matches, although some of the French sports federations are examining the possibility of restarting the season earlier, with matches played behind closed doors.

Attestations and fines

At present any trip outside the home needs to be accompanied by a signed, timed and dated attestation de déplacement dérogatoire – a certificate stating the purpose of your journey.

Anyone caught without one is liable to a €135 fine.

Whether this system, or a modified version of it, will continue after May 11th when more people will be out and about is not clear at this stage.

The French government has always been clear that the plan depends on the situation in hospitals.

At present the daily death tolls are falling, along with the number of hospital patients, but if these spike again the lockdown release could be paused or reversed.

 

 

 

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POLITICS

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

French President Emmanuel Macron will get a taste of public resistance to his second-term reform agenda this week during the first nationwide strike called since his re-election in April.

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

The 44-year-old head of state has pledged to push ahead with raising the retirement age having backed away from the explosive issue during his first five years in power.

But having lost his parliamentary majority in June, the pro-business centrist faces severe difficulties passing legislation, while galloping inflation is souring the national mood.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently, with changes to start taking effect next year.

“I’m not pre-empting what the government and the parliament will do, but I’m convinced it’s a necessity,” Macron told the BFM news channel last Thursday.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker argues that raising the retirement age and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without
increasing taxes.

On Thursday, France’s far-left CGT union, backed by left-wing political parties, has organised a national day of strikes, the opening shot in what is expected to be a months-long tussle.

Though the protests were originally planned to demand wage increases, they are now intended to signal broad opposition to the government’s plans.

“We’re against the raising of the retirement age,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the LCI broadcaster last week. “The government’s arguments don’t stack up.”   

Unpopular

Public opinion towards pension reform and the strikes is likely to be decisive in determining whether Macron succeeds with a reform he called off in 2020 in the face of protests and Covid-19.

An opinion poll last week from the Odoxa group found that 55 percent of respondents did not want the reform and 67 percent said they were ready to support protests against it.

But a separate survey from the Elabe group gave a more nuanced picture. It also found that only a minority, 21 percent, wanted the retirement age increased, but a total of 56 percent thought the current system no longer worked and 60 percent thought it was financially unsustainable.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to Macron told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” he said, referring to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) political party that has backed the strikes.

The second decisive factor will be how the government introduces the reform in parliament where Macron’s allies are around 40 seats short of a majority.

Some favour slipping it into a social security budget bill that will be voted on in October — a stealthy move that will be denounced as under-handed by critics.

Others think more time should be taken for consultations with trade unions and opposition parties, even though they have all ruled out working with the government.

Macron prefers the quicker option, one senior MP told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In both scenarios, observers expect the government to resort to a controversial constitutional mechanism called “article 49.3” that allows the executive to ram legislation through the national assembly without a vote.

If opposition parties unite against the measure or call a no-confidence motion in the government, they could trigger new elections.

The reform was “ballsy but dangerous,” one ally told French media last week.

Macron II

Success with the pension reform and separate changes to the unemployment benefits system will help the president re-launch his image as a reformer, experts say.

Since winning a historic second term in April, he has been caught up in the Ukraine war crisis amid reports the parliamentary election setback in June left him disoriented and even depressed.

“We’ve slightly lost the narrative of Macronism,” political scientist Bruno Cautres, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP recently.

The challenge was giving the second term a “direction” and showing “how it builds on the results of the first”, he said.

“The essence of Macronism, which does not have a long history, is the leader and the programme,” added Benjamin Morel from Paris II university.

Since being elected as France’s youngest-ever president in 2017, Macron has made overhauling social security and workplace regulation part of his political DNA.

“Emmanuel Macron can’t easily back away from a reform because burying a reform, it’s like disavowing himself,” Morel said.

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