France will relax travel restrictions inside the country and allow schools, cafés and restaurants to reopen from next week after successfully slowing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, prime minister Edouard Philippe announced on Thursday.
“Freedom will once again become the rule, and restrictions will become the exception,” he said. “On the health front the news is good, but not so good that everything can go back to normal.”
His speech marks the second stage of “deconfinement” after the easing on May 11 of a severe, two-month nationwide lockdown.
More than 28,500 people have died of Covid-19 infections in France since the start of March, and about 1,500 patients remain in intensive care, but the number of hospital admissions for the disease has slowed to a trickle after new infections and deaths peaked in April, two weeks after the lockdown began.
Now the government under President Emmanuel Macron is eager to restart the economy to limit permanent damage to the country’s industries and the tourism sector. Economic activity fell by a third at the start of the lockdown, and officials are forecasting that gross domestic product will shrink by at least 8 per cent in 2020, the worst depression since the second world war.
“The country is going to have to fight against the impact of a historic recession,” Mr Philippe said.
The French, currently forbidden to venture more than 100km from home except on essential business, will from Tuesday be allowed to travel freely within the country — a relaxation that will come as a relief to hoteliers and restaurant owners ahead of what is expected to be a sunny holiday season more dependent than usual on domestic tourism.
The regions worst hit by coronavirus were the Grand Est in eastern France, where an evangelical Christian gathering accelerated the spread of the virus, and Ile-de-France around Paris. Western regions such as Brittany have so far been largely spared.
Such regional disparities mean that tighter restrictions will remain in force in Ile-de-France, still classified as “orange” along with the overseas territories of Guyana and Mayotte, while the rest of the country is “green”.
Restaurants and bars in Paris, for example, will only be able to serve customers on outdoor terraces. The city’s parks and gardens, however, will reopen this weekend. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, had complained bitterly about the continued closure of the parks, which forced residents to crowd into other public spaces such as the banks of the Seine.
Theatres, gyms and swimming pools can reopen from June 2, except in “orange” zones, where the relaxation will be delayed for three weeks. Cinemas nationwide will start screenings from June 22.
Even outside Paris, however, life is a long way from returning to normal. Travellers must wear masks on all public transport, and foreign travel is all but stopped until at least June 15. Nightclubs remain closed, and teleworking will continue to be encouraged. “Social distancing” and special hygiene measures remain in force in offices, factories and restaurants.