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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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MONEY

Revealed: What will you receive from France’s €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

The French parliament has finally passed a massive €65 billion package of measures aimed at helping French residents with the spiralling cost of living. Here's a rundown of the help on offer, who it's available to and when it comes into effect.

Revealed: What will you receive from France's €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

After three weeks of sometimes heated debate, France’s parliament has adopted its multi-part purchasing power package to help mitigate rising cost of living and inflation.

In total, parliament approved a budget of nearly €65 billion for the whole package. 

It includes a raft of measures including price shields, tax rebates and grants. Here’s what is included and who will benefit.

Electricity and gas The government has voted to extend the tariff shield on gas and electricity prices until the end of the year: this means that gas prices will continue to remain frozen and that price hikes for electricity prices will be capped at four percent. 

For who: This applies to everyone who has a gas or electricity account in France.

When: The price freeze is already in effect and will continue until at least December 31st.

Fuel subsidy – The government’s fuel rebate (on petrol/gasoline and diesel) will be increased from €0.18 per litre to €0.30 in September and October, and then in November and December it will fall to €0.10. 

For who: All drivers (including tourists) – this is applied automatically at all fuel stations in France

When: The €0.18 per litre rebate is already in place and remains until August 31st, and rises to €0.30 on September 1st.

Pensions – The index point for pensions will be raised by four percent.

Who: This covers anyone who receives a French pension – roughly 14 million people – it does not affect anyone who gets a pension from another country.

When: From September 9th. 

Abolishing the TV licence fee – The annual TV licence raised €3.7 billion a year for public broadcasting, with the majority having gone toward France Télévisions, but has now been scrapped. It was €138 per household. 

For who: Any household with a television. This equates to about 23 million households in France who will no longer have to pay this yearly tax.

When: The was due to be levied on November 15th, but this year no bills will be sent out.

Tripling the Macron bonus – The maximum annual bonus – which is exempt from income and social security taxes – will be tripled.

It is a one time, tax-free payout that can be given to workers by their employers – if they chose to. Companies will now be able to pay up to €3,000 to their employees (and up to €6,000 for those with a profit-sharing scheme).

Who: This pertains to salariés (employees) whose businesses choose to offer this bonus.

When: The bonus can be paid between August 1st and December 31st.

Rent cap – Rent increases will be limited to 3.5 percent per year for existing tenants. Some cities already have in place their own rent control schemes, but the 3.5 percent cap is nationwide.

Who – This affects anyone who already has a tenancy agreement for a property in France (and also affects all landlords who are banned from making big rent hikes).

When – The 3.5 percent cap concerns annual rent increases that fall between July 2022 and June 2023.

Housing allowance – Those who benefit from personalised assistance for housing (APL) will see that increased by 3.5 percent.

Who: This pertains to those who qualify for governmental financial assistance with rent. Typically, this means low-income households. If you are already on APL – around 3.5 million people – the increase will be automatic, if you think you might qualify, apply through your local CAF.

When: The increase comes in your next payment, with the increased rate backdated to July 1st 2022.

Social benefits – The RSA top-up benefit will be increased by four percent (local authorities, who deal with RSA, will receive €600 million to help them finance and allocate this increase). Additionally, those who benefit from the ‘prime d’activité‘ (activity bonus) will see that value raised by four percent as well.

Who: Unemployed people below the age of 25 can qualify for RSA – this pertains to about 1.9 million people in France. The activity bonus is available to low-income workers – about 4.3 million people.

When: Catch-up payments will be in place from August 18th to September 5th. On September 5th, the updated payment will begin to be paid out.

Student grants – An increase of 4 percent for student grants (bourses) for higher education

Who: Students under the age of 28 who qualify for financial assistance in the form of grants. These students must qualify as ‘financially precarious’ for the school year of 2022-2023.

When: September 2022

Back-to-school grants – Families who meet certain income requirements are eligible for an allowance to help cover back-to-school costs – that grant will increase by four percent this year. There will also be an extra €100 subsidy for eligible families (with an additional €50 per child) paid “to those who need it most” according to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in an interview with RTL. 

Who: Low-income families with children. You can test your family’s eligibility on the website www.service-public.fr. This aid will impact 10.8 million households.

When: The one time payment will be paid at the start of the school-year in September.

The option to convert overtime days into extra cash – This is encompassed in two measures: increasing the ceiling of tax exempt overtime hours to €7,500 and opening the possibility for companies to buy back RTT days from their employees.

Eligible employees covered by the 35-hour week agreement accrue time in lieu if they work overtime, known as RTT days. Currently this time is taken as extra vacation days, but now employees will have the option to forgo the time off and instead be paid extra.

Who: For the buying back of RTT days, this applies to employees (salariés) who have an RTT agreement with their company.

For the increased cap on non-taxed overtime work, this applies to a range of employees, such as those who have 35-hour per week contracts and have their employer request that they work overtime or those who work beyond their part-time contract amount. You can learn more about whether you have the ability to declare overtime hours HERE

When: The RTT days buyout will run from between January 1st, 2022 to December 31st, 2025. For employees eligible for tax-free overtime compensation, the ceiling of €7,500 will only be in place for the year 2022.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

Pay rise for public sector workers – public sector pay will get a four percent rise in the index.

Who: Anyone employed in France as a fonctionnaire (eg civil servants, teachers, librarians).

When: This will be retroactive to July 1st

Assistance for some self-employed workers – A reduction in health and maternity insurance contributions will be introduced for low-earning self-employed workers. “Microentrepreneurs” will also benefit from a reduction in their flat-rate contributions.

Who: Self-employed workers whose monthly income does not exceed 1.6 times the minimum wage and who are registered as ‘microentrepeneurs’

When: TBC

The biometric carte vitale –  The Senate introduced this into the purchasing power package, but it is not a benefit. It will involve the implementation of a biometric carte vitale health card to “fight against social fraud” by adding an electronic chip with biometric data on it to health insurance cards. You can read more HERE.

Who: Everyone who is registered in the French health system and has a carte vitale (about 60 million people)

When: Lawmakers will begin plans to implement the plans in Autumn 2022, but it’s not clearly exactly what form the rollout will take.

How much will these measures impact inflation?

Some measures will likely be more effective than others. For instance, the extension of the tariff shield and increase of the fuel rebate in the early fall is largely to thank for France’s inflation level being two points lower than the European average, according to INSEE.

On the other hand, the tripling of the ceiling for the (optional) Macron bonus will likely not make a large difference. This is because it will likely not be widely taken advantage of, as last year only 4 million French people received the optional bonus, with the approximate average of the bonus having been only €500.

The pension changes will impact about 14.8 million people in France. However, according to economist Christopher Dembik, the revalorsation values are based on actual inflation and not on inflation expectations. “These revaluation measures will be too weak by the time they will be implemented,” Dembik said to French daily Le Parisien.

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