France toll tops 25,000 as PM defends post-lockdown plan
France on Monday reached the grim milestone of over 25,000 coronavirus deaths as its prime minister defended the government’s plan for easing a lockdown in the face of bitter criticism.
The French are due to emerge on May 11 from a lockdown that began in mid-March to combat the virus, with some schools reopening in a strategy different to other European countries.
Signs have grown that the epidemic is slowing in France although a spike in the daily death toll Monday to 306 — more than double the day earlier — propelled its total number of dead past 25,000 to 25,201.
But according to the latest health ministry figures, the more positive recent trends continued, with 123 fewer patients suffering from the coronavirus in intensive care to make a total of 3,696 receiving such urgent treatment.
Nationwide, there were also 267 fewer patients in hospital for coronavirus treatment, making a total of 25,548, it added.
France is now the fifth country to have recorded over 25,000 coronavirus deaths after Britain, Italy, Spain and the United States.
– ‘Economic life must resume’ –
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe rejected concerns that the government is moving too fast especially by reopening schools, a move that puts France out of step with some other EU countries.
“This confinement was necessary to meet the emergency, but its social and economic cost is colossal,” he told the Senate.
“We’re at a decisive moment, we cannot remain in confinement,” he said. “Economic life must resume imperatively and quickly.”
The government is impatient to relaunch activity, already forecasting that the economy will contract eight percent this year in its worst postwar performance.
But on Sunday, more than 300 mayors from the greater Paris region, including Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, penned an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron urging him to delay school returns, saying they need more time for the vast reorganisation of classrooms and daily routines.
Among the myriad new measures is a limit of just 15 students per class, which could require teachers to ensure distance learning for those unable to come to school.
“Preparations for the end of the lockdown are being imposed at a forced march, even though we still lack the necessary information,” the mayors wrote.
– ‘Catastrophe for vulnerable’ –
In a sign that the national political consensus that emerged during the epidemic is crumbling, the Senate upper house, where the right-wing opposition is the biggest force, voted Monday against endorsing the government’s plan.
The vote had mainly symbolic weight as it cannot halt the measures for easing the lockdown decreed by the government.
Philippe said school closures had been a “catastrophe for the most vulnerable children and adolescents”, adding that academic failure and dropouts risked becoming a “time bomb”.
Speaking at the Elysee Palace, Macron said final details of the post-lockdown plan would be unveiled Thursday, adding that he “understood all the worries”.
Lifting the lockdown is “an indispensable step” but “it’s not a return to normal,” he said.
Striking a downbeat note, he said “we must learn to live with this virus” until a reliable treatment or vaccine is produced.
The government was also facing fresh criticism over the cost and availability of face masks, which officially went on sale to the public Monday.
The head of the right-wing Senate faction, Bruno Retailleau, warned that “no-one can say that next week there will be enough masks to protect all the French.”
Philippe rejected claims by health workers who have accused retailers of building up stocks, even as many hospitals are still scrambling to secure enough to cope with the wave of COVID-19 cases.
“There were never any hidden stocks: Huge orders were placed, and it takes a certain amount of time before they can be made available,” he said.