When the coronavirus outbreak was at its height in France, the demand for face masks was so great many textile companies switched to making reusable masks made of cloth.
As the pandemic slows in Europe, businesses have millions of unsold masks on their hands, prompting a government effort to promote these “Made in France” masks.
Washable up to 20 times and sold for between €3 and €5 each, reusable face masks are a crucial means of limiting contagion.
And since mid-March, 450 French companies have begun making them, ramping up production and sometimes investing to make the switch.
Many people received free washable masks from their local authority, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo had distributed 2 million masks in the city. Photo: AFP
Only a few weeks ago, it was near impossible to buy masks in pharmacies in France and even essential workers said they could not source them, prompting anger against the government.
But with the virus on the wane, demand has fallen in recent weeks, prompting a glut and they are now omnipresent in the shop windows of pharmacies.
Some 40 million masks have gone unsold, worrying the textile industry.
Their cries for help to sell the excess goods had until now fallen on deaf ears.
Masks have been used to make statements during the recent anti-racism protests in France. Photo: AFP
But this week, the finance ministry invited the stakeholders for a group discussion and said it was going to “inform the public and large companies” of the benefits of reusable masks.
“Ten percent of companies have too many masks on their hands,” secretary of state for the economy Agnes Pannier-Runacher told RTL radio.
The excess of masks is not the result of a failure in policy, she said.
“Making masks saved hundreds of companies and thousands of jobs,” added Pannier-Runacher on LCP TV, at a time when industries ground to halt to observe a strict two-month lockdown period to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
But the “Made in France” masks are often snubbed in favour of the cheaper but less sustainable option – the disposable surgical mask.
“Many companies prefer to give their employees surgical masks imported from China,” said Pannier-Runacher.
The surgical mask seems “more practical, but it is less environmentally friendly and less economical,” the finance ministry said in a statement.
Carelessly discarded disposable face masks have become such a problem that the government has now introduced fines of €135 for littering masks.
The fine for littering face masks has risen to €135. Photo: AFP
The ministry also wants to sustain the French production line, in order to be ready for a hypothetical second wave of Covid-19 or a future health crisis.
“The public, companies and local communities need to understand that there are good-quality, reliable 'Made in France' masks that must be given preference over imported and disposable masks,” said Guillaume Gibault, the founder of leading French underwear brand Le Slip Francais.
Gibault told AFP he hoped there will be further initiatives to help the textile industry, which has suffered from outsourcing over the past decades.
Le Slip Francais, best known for its sleek underwear, now offers customers a pack of four reusable masks – in blue with red ties – for €36.
Gold sequin masks now on sale in Paris for 40 quid – unclear if the sequins provide extra virus protection . . . pic.twitter.com/NomIdv0TF2
— Emma Pearson (@LocalFR_Emma) May 16, 2020
Initially, the government advised that masks be worn only by doctors, nurses and people with symptoms, before backtracking and recommending a widespread use.
People accuse the government of having lied about the effectiveness of face masks at the start of the pandemic in order to reserve limited stocks for front-line medical personnel, although World Health Organisation advice on masks also changed as the pandemic developed.
Masks are now obligatory on public transport and many companies and retailers require staff and clients to wear them too.
As lockdown started to be lifted on May 11th, many local authorities also distributed free washable masks.