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HEALTH

Masks, fines and no kissing – no, France is not ‘back to normal’

While France has in recent weeks been able to lift many of its coronavirus restrictions - following better-than-expected health data - many others remain and it would be a mistake to think life in the country is 'back to normal', writes Emma Pearson.

Masks, fines and no kissing - no, France is not 'back to normal'
Entering most public spaces in France requires a mask and a squirt of hand gel. Photo: AFP

As we entered 'phase 3' of lockdown and more restrictions were lifted, I decided to take a trip out of Paris, the fist time I've left the city since March.

Our 80km trip to Monet's waterlily gardens at Giverny would have been unimaginable just six weeks ago and represented a giddy new freedom – but the trip also underlined just how much France has changed.

 

We spent large parts of the weekend masked – masks are compulsory on all public transport, and both the train out of the city and the Metro to the train station were plastered with signs reminding us of the rules on masks and 1m distancing. Failure to observe these rules can net you a €135 fine.

Masks were also compulsory in the gardens themselves – where entry was limited to small groups, with only pre-booked tickets allowed – and hand gel was required before entering the gardens, house or local art galleries.

This pattern will be replicated across France this summer where tourist sites such as the Eiffel Tower and Louvre are slowly reopening, but with a long list of new rules in place.

For those who work in the tourist business the lockdown has been devastating and while for residents the opportunity to see popular sights without the usual crowds of tourists is very pleasant, the small number of mostly French visitors at Giverny over the weekend will do little to restore lost livelihoods.

READ ALSO These are the 9 lockdown rules you still have to follow in France

Masks are also the rule in cafés and restaurants. Photo: AFP

Our charming Airbnb hostess Vivianne, in between fetching us fresh raspberries from her garden and urging us to mangez, mes enfants!, revealed that we were her first visitors of the summer and she has 'about a dozen' bookings for the rest of the year.

Phlegmatically, she declared that she was going to have a 'little rest' this summer and visit her grandchildren instead, but at the restaurant we visited on Saturday the owners were clearly worried.

They had been allowed to reopen from June 2nd, as Normandy was in the green zone, but had chosen to stay shut for another fortnight, worried about whether their largely tourist-based clientele would return.

On the night we visited – the first Saturday since reopening – the place was full of friends of the owners who had come along to show their support – but unless the visitors return to the area soon they face a bleak and anxious summer.

In the restaurant the mask rule was also enforced – customers need to wear a mask on entry and it can only be removed once you sit down and must be put back on for trips to the toilet – and staff were wearing heavy duty plastic visors that covered their whole face. 

Most bars and restaurants in France are operating similar policies although some may be stricter than others when it comes to reminding you to wear your mask.

Masks have never been compulsory on the street in France, although plenty of people do wear them especially in cities, but are mandatory in most public buildings, tourist sites and in many shops. This is unlikely to change soon, and France's transport minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday that she envisages masks remaining compulsory at least until November.

Around the country people are returning to offices and schools, but here too the list of regulations in place meant that nobody is likely to forget the health crisis.

 

Yes, almost all pupils are back at school but in most places parents are not allowed in the building and must form a socially distanced queue outside to drop off or pick up their little ones.

And even that fragile normality can soon be shattered – as one Paris parent told us.

The young mother had just put her kid back in crèche full time and both parents were set to return to work when crèche called to say one child had tested positive for coronavirus. All the children in that group were then sent home for two weeks quarantine and be tested. The parents too were asked to stay home and quarantine until the test results come through. So their plans to return to normal routine were dashed.

Returning to work has also been a gradual process – rules on minimum space per employee mean that many people are splitting their time between office work and continuing to work from home, or working in staggered shifts to avoid crowding.

 

Hand gel remains the norm in the workplace and even on the street, where dispensers have been installed around towns and cities.

But for French people it is perhaps a cultural thing that is the biggest daily reminder of the crisis – la bise.

In normal times most friendly interactions begin with a double (or treble in some areas) cheek kiss. This is now banned as unhygienic and four months on its loss from daily life continues to cause confusion with no widely-accepted alternative in place. Some people wave, some bump elbows, some forget entirely and go in for the kiss only to remember and veer off while others just shuffle awkwardly.

TV viewers may have noticed French president Emmanuel Macron on his visit to London greeting British officials with a slightly awkward-looking bow.

 

And hovering over everything is the fear of the 'second wave'. While current data seems to show the virus is under control and worries over a spike in cases as lockdown rules lift have – so far – not materialised, many experts are predicting a return of the virus in the autumn.

France's Scientific Council has ruled out a second nationwide lockdown and hopes that the country's test and trace system will enable any new outbreaks to be contained. But legislation currently passing through parliament aims to replace the State of Health Emergency with powers for localised lockdowns if they become necessary in the autumn.

With the densely-populated city of Paris predicted as a likely 'hot spot' in any second wave, many people are taking the opportunity for trips away and nights out now, knowing that come autumn we could be confined to our homes again.

“Make the most of the summer,” one doctor in Paris told us.

 

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POLITICS

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What’s in France’s 2023 budget?

France's finance minister has unveiled the government's financial plans for the next year, and says that his overall aim is to 'protect' households in France from inflation and rises in the cost of living - here's what he announced.

Income tax, property grants and cigarettes: What's in France's 2023 budget?

The 2023 Budget was formally presented to the Council of Ministers on Monday, before economy minister Bruno Le Maire announced the main details to the press. 

The budget must now be debated in parliament, and more details on certain packages will be revealed in the coming days, but here is the overview;

Inflation – two of the biggest measures to protect households from the rising cost of living had already been announced – gas and electricity prices will remain capped in 2023, albeit at the higher rate of 15 percent, while low-income households will get a €100-200 grant. The energy price cap is expected to cost the government €45 billion in 2023.

EXPLAINED: What your French energy bills will look like in 2023

Property renovations – the MaPrimeRenov scheme, which gives grants to householders for works that make their homes more energy-efficient, will be extended again into 2023, with a budget of €2.5 billion to distribute.

Income tax – the income tax scale will be indexed to inflation in 2023, so that workers who get a pay increase to cope with the rising cost of living don’t find themselves paying more income tax. “Disposable income after tax will remain the same for all households even if their salary increases,” reads the 2023 Budget.

Pay rises –  pay will increase for teachers, judges and other civil servants as inflation is forecast to reach 4.3 percent next year after 5.4 percent in 2022. Around €140 million is assigned to increase the salaries of non-teaching staff in schools. 

New jobs – nearly 11,000 more public employees will be hired, in a stark reversal of President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 campaign promise to slash 120,000 public-sector jobs – 2,000 of these jobs will be in teaching. 

Small business help – firms with fewer than 10 employees and a turnover of less than €2 million will also benefit from the 15 percent price cap on energy bills in 2023. The finance ministry will put in place a simplified process for small businesses to claim this aid. In total €3 billion is available to help small businesses that are suffering because of rising costs. 

Refugees – In the context of the war in Ukraine, the government plans to finance 5,900 accommodation places for refugees and asylum seekers in various reception and emergency accommodation centres. The budget provides for a 6 percent increase in the “immigration, asylum and integration” budget.

Cigarettes – prime minister Elisabeth Borne had already announced that the price of cigarettes will rise “in line with inflation”.

Ministries – Le Maire also announced the budget allocation for the various ministries. The Labour ministry is the big winner with an increase of 42.8 percent compared to last year, coupled with the goal to reach full employment by 2027. Education gets an increase of €60.2 billion (or 6.5 percent more than in 2022), much of which will go on increasing teachers’ salaries, while the justice and environment ministries will also see increased budgets.

Conversely, there was a fall in spending for the finance ministry itself.

Borrowing –  the government will borrow a record €270 billion next year in order to finance the budget. “This is not a restrictive budget, nor an easy one – it’s a responsible and protective budget at a time of great uncertainties,” said Le Maire. 

The government is tabling on growth of one percent, a forecast Le Maire defended as “credible and pro-active” despite an estimate of just 0.5 percent GDP growth by the Bank of France, and 0.6 percent from economists at the OECD.

The public deficit is expected to reach five percent of GDP, as the EU has suspended the rules limiting deficit spending to three percent of GDP because of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Parliament

The budget plans now need to be debated in parliament where they are likely to face fierce opposition. Emmanuel Macron’s centrist LREM party and its allies lost their majority in elections earlier this year.

Macron also plans to push ahead with a pension reform that would gradually start pushing up the official retirement age from 62 currently, setting up a standoff with unions and left-wing opposition parties.

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