Coronavirus: France facing severe confinement as European outbreak worsens

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - France’s population of 66 million faces general confinement at least a severe as in Italy and Spain as French President Emmanuel Macron prepares a sweeping round of new measures to limit the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Macron was due to make a televised address to the nation on Monday night as his government comes to terms with dire warnings from the director general of health, Jerome Salomon, that the spread of the outbreak has become “very worrying” and reflects rapidly deteriorating conditions.

One pressing concern for ministers and officials is that, despite drastic measures already taken – including the closure of restaurants, schools and universities and world-famous tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower, the palace of Versailles and the Louvre – too many people remain complacent about contact with others and continuing to socialise in defiance of medical advice.

Only hours after French television mocked “Anglo-Saxons” such as the British and Australians for panic buying toilet roll and other basic household products, it was reporting similar scenes of stockpiling – with the inevitable empty shelves – in France. There are widespread reports of supermarkets being “taken by storm” as families prepare for the prospect of being ordered to see out the crisis confined to home.

France is a country where touch is an important sense, as witnessed by the protracted rituals of kissing and shaking hands at every meeting. Mr Salomon, talking to the France Inter radio station, made it clear that such customs could not be maintained in the face of aggressively virulent disease.

Calling for a “general mobilisation of all French people” to fight the virus by acting as a barrier against its spread, he said the recommended distance of one metre between people was simply not being respected.

He voiced dismay at reports from the weekend showing crowded public parks.

"We still have people meeting, seeing one another in large numbers, bringing together children and older people,” he said.

“The French must understand something - perhaps we have not explained enough - that we can all carry the virus without knowing it … our loved ones, our children, our friends, our colleagues can be carriers because they will be sick in the coming hours or because they have minor symptoms that they do not even report. They have a little sore throat or slight headache, they are not paying attention and therefore they transmit the virus.”

Urging “hugely diminished contact”, Mr Salomon said this translated as seeing no more than a few people daily rather than 50 or 100, a message he feared was simply “not getting through” as demonstrated by the arrival of new patients at hospitals “every day, every hour".

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Even before the week began with the likelihood of increasingly severe restrictions on daily life, much of France was feeling demoralised. The French attach enormous importance to home life, famously putting family time ahead of opportunities to earn more by working longer. But enforced confinement at odds is seen as at odds with the Gallic spirit of joie de vivre.

“Life has become monotonous,” says Marie-Noelle, 70, in the department of la Sarthe south-west of Paris. “We already don't go out anymore. We no longer see our three children and eight grandchildren. I have stopped going to aqua-gym, shopping is done online or drive-and-collect, cinema seats were restricted to every other row and now they’ve had to close anyway.

“One son is working from home, the other is likely to be being laid off and our daughter’s work in psychiatry means she may be called up to help confined patients. We are healthy and have stocked up on essentials but at least neighbours have set up a system to supply older residents. But the atmosphere is one of hysteria.”

Marie-Noelle and her husband were disgusted that the first round of municipal elections went ahead on Sunday despite the government’s earlier announcement that all public places “not essential to the life of the country” should close.

The turn-out nationally was below half, a record low. Mr Macron’s centrist candidates generally fared badly and next Sunday’s run-offs are now in doubt. One prominent candidate, the former health minister Agnes Buzyn, placed only third in the first round in Paris behind the current socialist mayor, Anne Hidalgo, and the centre-right contestant Rachida Dati, announced she was suspending her campaign for the second round in view of the worsening crisis, without withdrawing from the race.

French children, excluded from schools from Monday for at least three weeks, have begun a regime of “la classe a la maison” – lessons at home – via the internet. Working parents have been urged to share childcare duties with alternating absences from employment but grand-parental contact is firmly discouraged for the protection of the elderly, those considered among the most vulnerable.

Renault and another giant of French car manufacturing. PSA, with brands including Vauxhall, Peugeot and Opel, have announced the suspension of production. Public transport is being reduced and Air France expects the number of seats offered on flights to decrease by 70-90 per cent over the next two months. In Britain, despite the reluctance of Boris Johnson’s government to close schools, lycees and other French educational establishments were closed until further notice.

The number of deaths from the virus increased by a third to 127 on figures up to Sunday, with a total of 5 423 cases recorded.

“It’s a real health and economic disaster,” said Corinne, a nurse living on the Mediterranean coast in the southern Var department. “My daughter works at a major hotel in Cannes and they’re having to lay people off as rooms empty and reservations are cancelled en bloc. I’m just crossing my fingers that I don’t catch this wretched thing. I’m avoiding the gym and keep a good distance when meeting anyone but it has to be said the authorities are not very reassuring.”

Some French traditions, however, seem immune even from a grave health crisis. The Gilets Jaunes or “yellow vest” protests against government economic policy, though greatly diminished since they began in November 2018, have not been suspended. Despite a ban on gathering no more than 100 people, hundreds demonstrated in central Paris at the weekend with the usual wave of disorder and arrests.

Updated: March 16, 2020 09:47 PM

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