French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: DANIEL COLE/REUTERS
French President Emmanuel Macron. Picture: DANIEL COLE/REUTERS

Paris — French President Emmanuel Macron announced a curfew in the country’s biggest cities to stem the unrelenting spread of the coronavirus, as rising infections begin to fill up hospital beds.

“This virus is dangerous and serious for everyone,” Macron said during a televised interview on Wednesday. “We are at a stage where we need to react.”

The curfew will run from 9pm to 6am in cities already on maximum alert. They include Paris, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Toulouse and Montpellier.

The French government has been struggling to come up with restrictions without inflicting the same economic damage caused by a national lockdown earlier in 2020. The delicate balancing act was evident when it advocated for people to book October holidays, even with cities including Paris closing bars and restaurants early to contain the disease.

The measures will start on Saturday, and last four weeks, and will be enforced by the police, with fines of up to €1,500 for repeated breach of rules. There will be exemptions for emergencies.

“I don’t think the measures are disproportionate,” Macron said. “If we don’t want to take stricter measures, we have to respect them.”

Similar dilemmas are playing out across Europe. The Dutch government on Tuesday announced it was closing bars and restaurants as part of a “partial lockdown” that will last at least four weeks. Italy imposed new curbs on nightlife, social events and amateur sports while the British prime minister announced on Monday that bars and pubs will close in the worst-hit parts of England. In Germany, authorities warned against complacency.

France went into a strict national lockdown in March and progressively reopened from May. As contagion picks again, it’s affecting more vulnerable people.

The weekly pace of Covid-19 cases jumped to more than 17,000 a day from less than 12,000 a week ago, and more than 40% of intensive care beds are being used for Covid patients in the Paris region, France’s most populous. That figure could climb to 90% by the month’s end, according to Assistance Publique-Hopitaux de Paris, meaning more non-Covid related surgeries will be postponed.

Macron said the situation in French hospitals is “unsustainable”.

Economy at risk

France’s economy had shown signs of rebounding quickly in May, with firms investing and consumers spending some of their pent-up savings. But towards the end of the summer, as virus cases began to rise, surveys showed confidence fading and activity in several sectors running well below pre-crisis levels.

The country’s statistics agency said earlier in October it expects the economic expansion to grind to a halt in the final months of the year. A prolonged tightening of health restrictions could even tip the economy back into recession, it said.

The French government’s strategy to stifle the epidemic has been criticised at home — most recently because a costly plan to test as many people as possible backfired when a shortage translated into delays to obtain results, making the testing campaign inefficient.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Jean Castex, whose popularity is weakening in polls, said the government was seeking to avoid a general lockdown “by all means”.



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