France seizes 440,000 face masks as it breaks up medical smuggling networks

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PARIS, May 8 (Reuters) - French police have dismantled smuggling networks trying to take advantage of a rush to buy medical supplies including face masks to tackle the coronavirus epidemic, the interior minister said on Friday.

By the end of April, police had dismantled a number of such smuggling networks, stopped scams and attempted scams to the value of more than 30 million euros ($32 million), and seized 438,000 masks, he said.

In addition, 5.7 million masks ostensibly ordered on the internet have been the subject of a scam or attempted scam, he said.

The government has been criticised by doctors and opposition politicians for being indecisive on whether to require masks to be worn in public, and buying too few of them.

"Masks have become a wanted item, and so something you steal or use to swindle people," Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told reporters.

"If this crisis has often shown the best of ourselves and enabled exceptional acts of solidarity, it has also been an opportunity, unfortunately, for some to try to take advantage of the situation, to exploit fear and the disease."

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Thursday advised the public to wear face masks, and made them compulsory on public transport for anyone older than 11 once a lockdown is eased on Monday.

Castaner said 10 million washable masks had been given to transport operators all over France, including 4.4 million in the Ile-de-France region around Paris, to be distributed to travellers free of charge from Monday.

He said over 200 million new masks would be made available every week, adding: "We have one aim: to make sure that every French person can get a mask." ($1 = 0.9240 euros) (Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide; Editing by Kevin Liffey)