President Emmanuel Macron has announced the closure of all French schools and universities from Monday as the country braces itself for an Italian-style surge in infections and deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.
In a televised address to the nation on Thursday evening, Mr Macron described the spread of the disease as “the worst health crisis in France for a century” and outlined new plans to support companies and workers suffering from the collapse of economic activity in recent days.
“The trial that we are undergoing demands a general mobilisation on the economic level,” he said, adding that he planned to speak to President Donald Trump in his capacity as current head of the G7 propose an “exceptional” response to the crisis by the industrialised nations in the group.
Mr Macron said he had decided after consulting scientific experts that there would be no delay or cancellation of the nationwide local elections to be held on the two Sundays of March 15 and 22 because it was important “to ensure the continuity of our democratic life and our institutions”.
The French president said the country was “only at the start of the epidemic that is accelerating and worsening everywhere in Europe”. Earlier, officials and doctors said France was likely to face a surge in cases similar to that experienced by Italy.
“The Italian scenario: we have to prepare for it,” said Jérôme Salomon, director-general of the French health department.
Eric Caumes, who heads the infectious diseases department at the Pitié Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, said he was seeing sick patients arriving every day with severe respiratory infections.
“Intensive care units are filling up very rapidly,” he said in a coronavirus debate on LCI television. “There is a risk that we’ll have to choose between coronavirus patients and the rest. We’ll soon be in the same situation as Italy.”
So far, France has recorded 2,876 confirmed coronavirus infections and 61 deaths, but the numbers are rising rapidly and a comparison of the data suggests the country is following the same trajectory as Italy with an eight-day delay. Italy has had more than 12,000 cases and 1,016 deaths.
Mr Caumes has called on his government to immediately take the same drastic measures as Italy and severely limit movement around the country and contact between people.
France has so far ruled out a complete shutdown or closure of the borders, although it has banned meetings of more than 1,000 people, stopped visits to old people’s homes because of the vulnerability of the elderly, and closed schools in parts of the country with known clusters.
Mr Macron called on people to limit their movements to what was essential and said companies should encourage people to work remotely from home, but said public transport would be maintained.
France has hitherto failed to persuade its EU partners of the need for a substantial joint budgetary effort to alleviate the economic damage caused by the pandemic, but it has taken national measures to help small businesses adopt short-time working without penalising employees through lay-offs.
Muriel Pénicaud, labour minister, said 3,600 companies had requested permission to temporarily cut their workforces without breaking employment contracts. That would cost the state €180m in benefits.
Bruno Le Maire, finance minister, said he was open to raising the ceiling on such compensation and Mr Macron spoke of a “massive” programme. Mr Le Maire also announced the creation of a “solidarity fund” to help businesses affected by the pandemic, although he did not specify the size.
Bpifrance, the public investment bank, would provide credit guarantees to medium-sized companies as well as smaller ones, the finance minister said. France has already agreed to allow affected companies to delay tax and social security payments.
Big French groups such as LVMH and Sanofi have laid groundwork for employees to work from home but not yet required it, and have begun splitting teams up to ensure that if there were infections that they would not take out entire departments. French banks, meanwhile, have started using back-up sites for some employees and are still waiting to decide what to do with traders.