French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (left) presents the details for the end of the country's lockdown, in Paris, May 7 2020. Picture: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / POOL / AFP
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (left) presents the details for the end of the country's lockdown, in Paris, May 7 2020. Picture: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT / POOL / AFP

Paris — France will start rolling back lockdown measures, joining Germany, Italy and the Netherlands in easing restrictions as Europe’s economic pain from the fallout of the coronavirus intensifies.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the country was ready for a nationwide plan to relax curbs on public life, though strict controls will remain on public transport in Paris, where infection rates are too high. Looser restrictions on businesses and stores will start coming into effect on Monday in a gradual process designed to avoid a second wave of infections.

Denmark and Norway announced similar measures. Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg  said most public and private institutions that have been closed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus would be reopened by mid-June.

Demark plans to allow its entire retail sector, including shopping malls, to reopen from May 11. Schools for the oldest students would also open, as well as restaurants. There would restrictions on the number of people and opening hours, reports said.

Despite more than 140,000 deaths on the continent, European leaders are feeling the heat to accelerate a return to normality and are trying to walk a fine line between reactivating the economy and avoiding a renewed outbreak. France on Thursday reported the fewest new virus-linked deaths in four days and the lowest number of intensive-care patients in six weeks.

The economic damage is becoming increasingly evident, with a 9.2% decline in March industrial production in Germany and a 16.2% drop in France. The crippling impact on Europe’s two biggest economies from just half a month of factory closures sets up even grimmer figures for April, when millions of people were all but confined to their homes across the continent.

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose approval rating has declined after an initial bump during the virus crisis, is among European leaders whose political standing is increasingly on the line as governments end lockdowns. France has Europe’s second-highest number of confirmed cases after Spain.

France’s plan will be progressive and differentiated. Local situations will be constantly monitored, with remote work remaining a priority. Some schools could remain closed until fall due to difficulties in implementing social distancing and sanitary measures, and restaurants, bars and cafes will remain closed until at least early June.

With face masks mandatory on public transportation, travel of less than 100km will be allowed. Border restrictions with European countries will remain in force at least until June 15 and most travellers from non-European countries remain barred until further notice.

“The French economy must restart,” finance minister Bruno Le Maire said. “We lost a lot of growth and jobs, and we therefore must restart economic activity within the most secure conditions.”

Bloomberg, Reuters