France has announced a carefully phased plan for easing the severe restrictions imposed in mid-March. The strategy is far more coherent, cautious and realistic than the miraculous ‘reopening’ envisioned by U.S. authorities.
On Tuesday, April 28, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe appeared before the French National Assembly to announce his government’s plan for releasing the French people from the confinement imposed on them since mid-March, when the severity of France’s COVID-19 problem first became apparent. The plan offers a tentative, reasonably detailed blueprint for rebuilding French social and economic life one step at a time.
What it pointedly does not offer is any illusory hope of “reopening” or “returning to normalcy” any time soon. Philippe made it clear that he and his ministers understand that the crisis is not over and that any attempt to pretend that it is will only precipitate a second round of infection and deepen the predicament in which the country finds itself.
“We are going to have to live with the virus,” Philippe announced at the outset of his speech. The strict confinement measures that France instituted six weeks ago have slowed the spread of COVID-19 but have not eradicated the disease. Nevertheless, the situation has improved to the point where the government is prepared to ease current restrictions starting May 11, but only if the data allow: “If the statistics are not what we anticipate,” the prime minister made clear, “we will not deconfine on May 11.” Assuming that the indicators allow, however, the first phase of the deconfinement plan will begin on that date and continue until June 1. The second phase is to begin on June 1 and extend through the end of the summer.
For the foreseeable future French citizens will be required to wear masks in public. Much criticized for having failed to ensure an adequate supply of masks to date, Philippe promised that there would be enough masks to meet the demand, with 100 million surgical masks supplied per week for medical personnel and 20 million washable masks per week made available to the general public. Masks will be supplied through local governments, with 50 percent of the cost borne by the central government. In addition, the post office will establish an e-commerce facility to sell masks to individuals.
Testing and contract tracing constitute the second prong of the Phase 1 initiative. The objective is to establish the capacity to perform 700,000 tests per week by May 11. The prime minister did not specify the precise nature of the tests to be performed, however. Persons testing positive will be required to self-isolate for fourteen days, either at home or in a designated facility, including requisitioned hotels if necessary. “Brigades” of contact tracers will be recruited to identify people with whom those testing positive might have been in contact recently.
Businesses that can operate via telecommuting will be “strongly” encouraged to do so. In order to reduce crowding in public transportation, businesses requiring the physical presence of workers will be encouraged to stagger hours. Public transportation capacity will remain drastically limited for at least three weeks after May 11. Seats will be blocked off on the Paris Metro and standees will be required to maintain adequate social distance. During rush hours, buses and subways will be reserved for workers only.
Of course, workers cannot return to work if they have to care for their children, so school reopening also figures in Phase 1. The plan is to “very gradually” reopen elementary and nursery schools throughout the country starting on May 11. Participation will be voluntary. Nursery school pupils will not wear masks; elementary school pupils may wear masks if they wish but will not be required to. Teachers and caretakers must be masked, however. Critics in opposition parties have already directed fire at this aspect of the plan. The rationale for mask wearing is not clear. Although the infection rate of young children is very low, the evidence about whether they can be asymptomatic carriers remains ambiguous.
Daycare centers for still younger children will also be allowed to reopen on May 11, but group sizes will be limited to a maximum of ten. Middle schools will not reopen until May 18, and then only in départements designated “green,” that is, with low COVID infection rates. (The economically crucial Ile-de-France region, which includes Paris, is in the “red” zone, so middle schools will not reopen there.) Middle school students will be required to wear masks. Reopening high school classes will not be considered before the end of May, with vocational high schools to reopen first.
The prime minister urged employers to equip workers with masks “when their means allow.” “Recovery requires this,” he added, promising to provide assistance to very small businesses and independent contractors to purchase masks.
At present, the French are limited to one hour outside the home each day, with self-authorized written certification of their purpose, and they may not travel more than 1 kilometer from home. As of May 11, they will be authorized to travel as much as 100 kilometers from home without authorization of any kind. Travel beyond that limit will not be authorized except for “serious familial or professional reasons.”
Many businesses will be allowed to reopen on May 11, but not bars, restaurants, or cafés, for which a decision has been deferred until the end of May. Outdoor food markets can reopen on May 11 unless local officials believe that adequate social distancing cannot be maintained. Public and private gatherings may not exceed 10 people. Beaches will remain closed. Museums, theaters, and concert halls will also remain closed, and outdoor events with more than 5,000 spectators are prohibited until at least September 1. Religious buildings may remain open but are requested not to allow any ceremonies such as weddings or funerals to take place before June 2.
A number of European countries are collaborating in the development of a StopCovid contact tracing app for smartphones. This has been controversial in France because of concerns about invasion of privacy. Philippe said that no decision has been made about the use of this app in France and that debate about its parameters is “reasonable” but “premature … in view of uncertainties about the application.” He promised that there would eventually be a vote before its use was authorized in France.
All in all, the French deconfinement plan shows the French government bureaucracy doing what it does best: producing comprehensive guidelines and sets of rules governing the behavior of key social actors, including public officials such as mayors and prefects and private-sector actors such as employers, shop owners, independent contractors, and religious establishments. The rationales for its decisions, though not always clear, appear to take account of what is known about the disease to date. The planning is much more detailed for the imminent first phase, which begins in just two weeks, on May 11. What will happen in the second phase, which starts a little less than three weeks after that, is much less clear and will depend, as it should, on the results of Phase 1. Phase 3, apparently envisioned for September 1, is vaguer still.
The Philippe plan is careful to avoid raising the kind of false hope that Donald Trump has repeatedly held out to Americans: that the disease will somehow miraculously disappear or that the country can be “reopened” or “liberated” on some ever-receding date certain. France is preparing its citizens for a long period of restrictions, to be adjusted if and when conditions permit. Questions remain about whether it can deliver on its key promises to supply masks, adequate testing, and contact tracing. It is also unclear how much damage the economy will continue to sustain as businesses reopen under the new conditions and with extensive sectors still shut down, including nearly the entirety of the tourist and travel sectors, which play such an important role in France.
For all its vaunted state capacity, France was slow to react to COVID-19 and suffered along with many other countries from shortages of masks, tests, ICU beds, and ventilators. Still, it has managed in six weeks of confinement both to flatten the infection curve and to put together a comprehensive and coherent plan for moving forward. The system’s impressive capacity to learn from its errors and adapt quickly yet appropriately tentatively to the new reality contrasts starkly with the chaotic American response. Here, incompetence and stupidity at the top has prevented lessons learned at the local and state level from being forged into a coherent national policy such as the one announced today by Édouard Philippe.