EXPLAINED: How does France’s Covid-19 alert system work?

France is using a local alert system and map that sees the areas with the highest level of Covid-19 infections subject to strict new restrictions including the closure of bars.

EXPLAINED: How does France's Covid-19 alert system work?
Photo: AFP

As Covid-19 infection rates continue to soar in France and hospitals are coming under pressure, the government is determined to avoid another nationwide lockdown.

Instead it has decided on a localised 'alert' system that imposes strict restrictions on areas with the highest number of cases. Separate to the alert system, but linked to areas with high numbers of cases, are local curfews (see below).

Here's how the system works.

*Note that for both the heightened and maximum alert status are related to cities and surrounding area (metropoles) rather than the whole département (see more below).

Colours – there are four stages to the system, coloured pink, red, dark red and dark grey on the Health Ministry's map.

The levels are – alert, heightened alert (alerte renforcée) maximum alert (alerte maximale) and state of emergency.

Those areas coloured light grey on the map are where there is no alert in place.

Alert – there are 72 départements concerned by this, coloured pink on the map.

An area is classed on alert if there is an infection rate of 50 cases per 100,000 people.

Local authorities in these areas can take extra “pertinent” measures to curb the spread, but they are not obligated to do so.

However all these areas must limit weddings, parties and social events to 30 people maximum.

Heightened alert – There are eight metropoles on this alert level; Bordeaux, Rennes, Rouen, Nice, Toulouse, Montpellier, Dijon and Clermont-Ferrand.

Areas are classed as being on “heightened alert” if there is an infection rate above 150 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a high level of spread among elderly (above 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants), as well as a moderate pressure on the areas hospitals.

Local authorities must take a string of toughened measures in these areas.

These include: closing bars at 10pm at the latest, limiting the number of people allowed to gather in public spaces to 10 maximum, lower the threshold for big events from 5,000 to 1,000 and ban all large parties such as student parties. 

Restaurants are for the time being not affected by the early closing rule.

Gyms and sports halls will also close in most cases, along with community halls. Visits to Ehpad nursing homes will only be possible with appointments.

Maximum alert – In the first round of health briefings only two areas received this designation, the overseas département of Guadeloupe and Aix-Marseille – the southern port city and its surrounding areas. The initial designation is for 15 days, but local authorities have announced that Marseille's alert level has been extended until October 27th.

But on October 4th Paris and the petite couronne – the surrounding départements of Seine-Saint-Denis, Val-de-Marne and Hauts-de-Seine – were also moved up to maximum alert.

On October 6th four more areas joined the maximum alert list; Lille, Lyon, Grenoble and Saint-Etienne. The cities of Toulouse and Montpellier followed on October 11th.

This means there is an infection rate above 250 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a very high level of spread among elderly (above 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants), plus pressure on hospitals with intensive care units that have filled up over 30 percent of their beds with Covid-19 patients.

The highest level of alert means local authorities must close all bars for at least two weeks, although the period could be prolonged if the health situation required. Initially restaurants were included in the closure, but the government later announced a compromise that some could stay open under strict health conditions.

All other public spaces that do not already have strict hygiene rules in place must also close, although cinemas, museums and theatres will be exempt from this if they have sufficient hygiene protections. Cinemas and theatres already have strict rules on mask-wearing for the audience.

Metropoles not départements

It's important to note that for both the heightened and maximum alert status are related to cities and surrounding area (metropoles) rather than the whole département.

EXPLAINED: What is a French metropole

So for example in Bouches-du-Rhone – the département that includes Marseille – people who live in the Aix-Marseille metropole are on maximum alert level while people in the rest of the département are on alert level (pink).

State of Emergency – no areas received this designation and no measures were outlined for them. During the first wave of the virus the whole of France was placed in a State of Health Emergency, but this designation seems to open the way to declaring a State of Emergency in certain areas only.

Curfew – In addition to the restrictions brought about by the alert system is the curfew. As of Friday, October 23rd, 54 of France's 96 mainland départements are covered by a 9pm to 6am curfew. During those times everyone must stay at home unless they have an essential reason for being out, and any trip outside requires a permission form. Police are patrolling and breaking curfew means a €135 fine or €3,750 for repeat offenders. For full details on the curfew and which areas it covers – click here.

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‘Public opinion is ready’ – These French senators want to legalise marijuana

A group of 31 French senators of the Socialist, Green and Republican parties have come together to write a statement calling for the legalisation of marijuana in France.

'Public opinion is ready' - These French senators want to legalise marijuana

France is known for having some of the strictest laws regarding marijuana consumption in Europe – while simultaneously maintaining one of the highest rates of cannabis usage in the EU. 

A group of French senators – coming from the Socialist, Green and centre-right Les Républicains parties – are trying to change those laws, and have come together to call for marijuana to be legalised in France.

The group of 31 co-signed a statement published in French newspaper, Le Monde, on Wednesday, August 10th.

In the statement, the senators promised to launch a ‘consultation process’ to submit a bill to legalise marijuana “in the coming months.”

The proposition was headed by Senator Gilbert-Luc Devinaz, a member of the Socialist Party, and gained support from the party’s leader, Patrick Kanner.

READ MORE: The long and winding road towards changing France’s cannabis laws

A report by the Assemblé Nationale, which was published in May 2021, estimated that nearly 18 million French people (more than 25 percent of the population) had already consumed marijuana, and that an additional 1.5 million consume it regularly.

This, coupled with the 2019 finding that nearly one in two French people (45 percent) said they were in favour of legalisation, according to a survey by the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT), helped strengthen the senators’ position.

“Public opinion is ready, the legislature must act,” they wrote.

Their senators argue that legalising marijuana in France will allow the authorities to better protect French citizens, saying that legalising would not require “minimising the health impacts of cannabis consumption” but rather would allow regulation similar to “public policies for tobacco, alcohol or gambling.”

For the group of 31 senators, the benefits of legalisation would involve a better control over the “health quality of products consumed,” “curbing trafficking in disadvantaged areas,” developing large-scale prevention plans,” and finally the taxation of cannabis products and redirection of law enforcement resources. Decriminalisation – in their opinion – would not be sufficient as this would simply “deprive authorities the ability to act,” in contrast to legalisation. 

READ MORE: Is France moving towards legalising cannabis for recreational purposes?

“In the long term, new tax revenues would be generated from the cannabis trade and from savings in the justice and police sectors”, which would make it possible to mobilize “significant resources for prevention as well as for rehabilitation and economic development,” wrote the senators.

In France, the conversation around cannabis has evolved in recent years – former Health Minister (and current government spokesman) Olivier Véran said to France Bleu in September 2021 that “countries that have gone towards legalisation have results better than those of France in the last ten years,” adding that he was interested in the potential therapeutic use of cannabis.

Currently, the drug is illegal in France. Previously, it fell under a 1970-law of illicit drug use, making it punishable with up to a year prison and an up to €3,750 fine.

However, in 2020, the government softened the penalties, making it possible for those caught consuming it to opt for an on-the-spot fine of €200.

There is also an ongoing trial involving 3,000 patients to test the impacts of medical marijuana usage, particularly with regard to pain relief.