Face masks in France: Where to buy and when to wear them

French shops, pharmacies and tobacconists are stocking up on masks to begin sales on May 4th. Here's what you need to know.

Face masks in France: Where to buy and when to wear them
Masks will play a key role in France's strategy to exit the current strict nationwide lockdown on May 11th. Photo: AFP

As France prepares to begin to lift its strict nationwide lockdown on May 11th, the country's supermarkets prepare stocks of masks to sell to the public.

France's current stance on masks is in stark contrast with the government's original advice to the public.

Worried about shortages and hoarding, the French government requisitioned all the country's supply of masks at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, saying wearing masks was unnecessary for anyone not belonging to exposed groups – like health workers – or those who were already sick.

Masks were distributed to healthcare workers but for the general public a prescription was needed in order to buy one at a pharmacy.

But as the scientific advice on masks changed, France's advice shifted as well. In the months since the epidemic hit, the country has doubled its national production.

Masks will play a key role in France's strategy to progressively ease its lockdown without provoking backlash in the number of coronavirus cases.

Will wearing a mask be compulsory?

In his speech to the nation on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said wearing a mask would be “preferable in several circumstances” and compulsory in others. 

There is not yet a nationwide requirement to wear masks on the street in France, although local restrictions may vary as local authorities thrash out their plans to ease the lockdown.

The mayor of Lyon said on Thursday, April 30th, that wearing a face mask out on the street could be made compulsory in Lyon starting May 11th.

Wearing a mask will however be required for anyone taking public transport.

Certain groups like health workers, teachers, second year pupils, and some others will also have to wear masks.

Shops may require their customers to wear a mask and can refuse people entry if they don't.

Volunteers in Paris this week distributed free face masks to people taking public transport. Photo: AFP

Where to get a mask?

Pharmacies already are allowed to sell masks and, starting May 4th, supermarkets and other stores will follow suit.

Big supermarket chains like Carrefour, Intermarché and Leclerc have said they have millions of masks in stocks ready to sell from next week.

The government has said it will be leaning on local authorities, mayors, organisations, shops, tabacs and others to distribute masks.

“I am open to all local initiatives,” said Health Minister Olivier Véran.

Won't they be free?

Some local authorities will distribute masks for free to everyone. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has said wearing a mask in the street is “absolutely indispensable” and promised that “all Parisians will be given a mask for free.”

Already this week people travelling by public transport had masks handed out to them on several Metro stations in Paris while other local authorities including in Cannes and Nice have also begun distributing them.

The government will also distribute 5 million reusable masks to the country's “most vulnerable” every day.

But in general people it looks like will have to pay for the masks.

A tailor displays handmade washable protective face masks outside his shop in Paris. Photo: AFP

What kind of masks are we talking about?

There are several different types of masks.

Firstly, there are the masks known as FFP2, which are the masks offer the most protection to the user. These masks will continue to be reserved for health personnel.

Then there are surgical “category 1” masks, which also have been and will continue to be reserved for health workers. 

These masks filter about 90-95 percent of the particles emitted by the person wearing them, according to the French National Agency for Medical Security (ANSM).


Thirdly, there are “category 2” masks, which filter about 70 percent of particles and will be made available to the general public.

How expensive will the masks be?

It depends on the mask.

The government has said masks should be sold for a price between €2 and €5 depending on how long they can be used. Some masks are washable at 60 degrees and can be used 20-30 times.

Single-use masks have been priced at 60c by several businesses.

The government has said it could cap the price in order to prevent abuse, as it did with hand gel at the beginning of the outbreak.

Surgical one-time masks have been capped at 95c apiece (€47,50 for a box of 50 masks).

The government has said that while capping the price of surgical masks is easy – like hand sanitiser, they are subject to standardised production regulations so the cost of producing them does not largely vary – the same cannot be said for regular fabric masks. 

Reusable fabric masks produced for the population at large can be produced in France, abroad, by hand or machine. Production costs will therefore differ depending on each mask, making fixing such a national cap difficult.

Will France have enough masks for everyone?

The government has promised that they will have enough masks for everyone from May 11th – the date that lockdown restrictions start to be eased.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in his speech on Tuesday that France was producing 8 million surgical masks per week, up from 4 million at the beginning of the epidemic.

The country has also increased its imports, including a pending order of nearly two billion masks from China.

Supermarkets have said they have managed to acquire stocks of millions of masks to sell to the public as of next week.

“We can reveal that we have secured 225 million masks, 175 million surgical, 50 million cloth masks, for our customers,” said the CEO of supermarket chain Carrefour told BFMTV on Thursday.

Leclerc said it has 170 million masks in stock and Intermarché has 70 million.

Carrefour said it would make 10 million masks available for sale from May 4th. It will sell boxes of 50 masks and each customer will be able to buy two boxes max.

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New Covid wave in autumn ‘virtually certain’ say French experts

The head of the government's new health advisory body says that a surge of Covid cases when the French head back to work after the summer break is virtually certain.

New Covid wave in autumn 'virtually certain' say French experts

Immunologist Brigitte Autran, president of new government health advisory body the Comité de veille et d’anticipation des risques sanitaires (Committee to monitor and anticipate health risks) which has replaced the Conseil scientifique, told Le Parisien that “the Covid epidemic is not behind us” and said that the French would have to get used to “living with” the virus.

The Covidtracker website currently shows that the virus is in decline across France, with the R-rate currently at 0.7 – any figure lower than one indicates that the number of infections is falling.

Autran, whose appointment as head of the new body was confirmed on Wednesday, said that the most likely scenario was for a “new epidemic peak in the autumn”, when people return to work after the summer holidays.

“Will it be due to a new variant or the return of cold weather?” she said. “We are not soothsayers, but it is almost certain that there will be a wave.”

“Today, we must go towards living with it,” she added, reintroducing the French to an expression previously used by President Emmanuel Macron and several ministers.

“This does not mean accepting the deaths or the severity of the disease,” she went on, pointing to the fact that health authorities in France still have “levers to activate” to fight the virus. 

Despite the fact that nearly 80 percent (79.6 percent) of people over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated against the virus, she said that, “unfortunately there are still too many people who have not been vaccinated or revaccinated.”

And she said the new body would work with the government to improve the public’s access to drugs, such as Paxlovid, and vaccines.

Vaccination is still open to anyone who has not yet had their shots, while a second booster shot is on offer to certain groups including over 60s, pregnant women, those with health conditions or people who are in close contact with vulnerable people.

EXPLAINED Who qualifies for a second Covid vaccine booster shot in France?

The French government in August voted to end to State of Emergency that allowed it to impose measures like travel bans and lockdowns, although further restrictions could be put in place if cases rise again and parliament agrees.