Will France bring back mandatory mask-wearing?

France's public health watchdog is reportedly "studying" the possibility of bringing back compulsory face coverings on public transport - we look at what happens next and what Covid rules remain in place this autumn.

Will France bring back mandatory mask-wearing?
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne adjusts her face mask during a session of questions to the government at The National Assembly in Paris on July 19, 2022. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

Amid its eighth wave of Covid-19, the return of mandatory masking in certain places is “under study” by French health watchdog, Covars. 

Face-coverings have remained compulsory in a few specific places – such as hospitals – but since May have only been “strongly recommended” on public transport.

Now experts disagree on whether a return would be possible. The question is legally complicated, as France is no longer in a state of emergency, and the law that allowed the government to make masking mandatory (le loi relative à la gestion de la sortie de crise sanitaire) expired on August 1st. 

Since May, masks have been ‘recommended‘ rather than ‘required’ on public transport and only remained compulsory in hospitals and other health centres.

In the airplanes, masking “remains nevertheless recommended”, as indicated on the Paris airport website.

Trains have similar messaging – as SNCF also says wearing masks are “strongly recommended in our stations and in our trains.” The Paris public transport service RATP also “strongly recommends” that passengers wear masks, although in reality few do.

Only hospital directors, doctors and pharmacies have retained the right to require masks to be worn.

According to RFI, obligatory masking “could be made compulsory again in the form of ministerial or prefectural decrees, depending on the evolution or degradation of the health situation; if a new problematic variant of the virus is identified.”

However, legal experts disagree on the methods France could use make masks obligatory again, as well as how likely such a measure would be.

Legal expert Guillaume de Durat told Le Parisien that he does not see any legislative avenue to reinforce compulsory masking, outside of care settings.

De Durat speculated that if Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne wanted to require face coverings on public transport, she might be able to do so by passing an order using “general police power with the risk that the Council of State may oppose it.” 

“There are many opponents to wearing the mask, so there would inevitably be appeals,” he said.

Another legal expert, Serge Slama said that up until now, compulsory face coverings have been required because a legal text authorised doing so (the law placing France in a public health emergency).

However, the legal framework that replaced the loi relative à la gestion de la sortie de crise sanitaire does not mention masking requirements. Additionally, passing a new law could be complicated with the current parliamentary layout, as President Macron’s coalition does not have an absolute majority. 

Lawyer Caroline Lantero told Le Parisien that “it would be necessary to really face a real public health threat for [compulsory masking] to be validated.” 

The Covid-19 situation in France

On Tuesday, the French health authority, Santé publique France, recorded 21 percent rise in positive coronavirus tests when compared to the previous week. 

Hopsitalisations are also on the rise – 49 percent higher on Tuesday, October 4th when compared to last week’s figures.

As a result, the Minister of Health, François Braun, said on Tuesday evening that the new public health watchdog, Covars (Comité de veille et d’anticipation des risques sanitaires), which replaced the Scientific Council, was studying the return of mandatory masking in certain places, such as public transport.

Brigitte Autran, the head of Covars, said that France should “take cues from Asian populations who have been wearing masks for a very long time” and that doing so “should become a kind of civic gesture.”

While she said there is “no obligation” currently, Covars of the mandatory mask in certain places was “under study” in the new scientific committee. 

What is the government recommending?

Several French government officials, including Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, have recommended continued mask-wearing.

Borne said over the summer that people should wear masks “in closed spaces, where there are many people, particularly in [public] transport.”

In addition to masking, the French government is tackling rising Covid-19 rates by beginning its fall vaccination campaign for vulnerable populations.

READ MORE: France launches autumn Covid booster campaign with new dual-strain vaccine

As of October 3rd, dual-strain Omicron adapted vaccines became available for use amongst certain groups. You can read more if you qualify HERE.

What about France’s neighbours?

Germany decided to make it compulsory to wear a FFP2 mask in long-distance trains on October 1st.

In addition, each German state has the possibility to impose it in other types of public transport, such as the subway and the bus.

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Paxlovid and vaccines: The latest Covid advice from the French government

The French health minister outlined on Friday the government recommendations amid the "tripledemic" of Covid-19, influenza, and bronchiolitis that has hit the country in recent weeks.

Paxlovid and vaccines: The latest Covid advice from the French government

French Health Minister François Braun held a press conference with other public health officials on Friday to provide the public with the government’s latest public health advice.

Earlier in the day, the French health minister said on BFMTV that fourth doses of the Covid-19 vaccine were available to all groups. Previously, only at-risk populations were eligible.

READ MORE: Can anybody in France now get the latest Covid booster vaccine?

Here is what the public health officials said:

The situation

Health Minister Braun began the press conference by reminding the public that France is facing a “triple epidemic,” as the nine Covid-19 wave occurs alongside seasonal illnesses of influenza and bronchiolitis. Specifically, the health minister said that hospital emergency room visits and hospitalisations for the flu had doubled in the last week.

Therefore Braun called for voluntary acts of “solidarity” to prevent a rise in cases and serious infections, particularly of Covid-19, during the end-of-year festivities. 

According to Braun, France counted more than 100,000 new Covid-19 contaminations in recent days, with more than 1,000 patients being treated in critical care services.

Wearing a mask

The public officials reminded the public that wearing a mask is an “act of solidarity.” While the mask is not required, it is highly recommended, particularly in “crowded and enclosed areas,” such as public transportation.

Minister Braun encouraged wearing a mask when travelling to Christmas holiday celebrations this year.

“You do not know if the person next to you is immune-compromised,” said COVARS head Brigitte Autran, recommending that people wear masks while travelling.

Braun also mentioned that in nursing homes and care centres, masks could become required, at the behest of the establishment’s management.

Getting vaccinated against both influenza and Covid-19

The minister of health noted that the level of vaccination in France against influenza was “five percent lower this year” when compared with 2021, making the population more vulnerable. Additionally, the minister expressed concern over the rate of vaccination against Covid-19 (second boosters) in nursing homes and care centres to be “too low,” with rates around “21 and 23 percent for the over 80s.”

Braun reiterated that all groups in France are now eligible for a second booster against Covid-19. The minister said he was “appealing to individual and collective responsibility” in encouraging people to get both the Covid-19 and flu vaccines prior to spending the Christmas holidays with family members.

The minister said that all groups in France should be eligible to receive both vaccines at the same time – one in each arm. 

READ MORE: Flu vaccine opens to all adults in France: What you need to know

Access to Paxlovid

Brigitte Autran said that the treatment drug, Paxlovid, is very effective against the BQ1.1 Covid-19 variant, which is circulating around France currently. She explained that groups at-risk of developping severe forms of Covid-19, or those whose immune systems did not generate responses to the vaccines, would be eligible for prescriptions from their primary care doctors for Paxlovid.

A prescription can be created for a three month period, without the patient needing to be sick with Covid-19 already. Once such a patient tests positive, they can use the existing prescription to access Paxlovid.

Protecting children and babies against bronchiolitis

Romain Basmaci, a pediatrician and professor of medicine, issued several recommendations. He advised that parents wipe down children’s toys and avoid sharing toys between two children. He also recommended that if a parent becomes sick, they should begin wearing a mask and decreasing physical contact with their young child to better protect them.

He added that keeping children’s noses clean and clear is a good practice to protect them while sick, even though there are no specific treatments for bronchiolitis. Additionally, he said that if your child is struggling to eat, smaller quantities rather than full meals may be a helpful way to ensure they remain well-nourished.