French doctors appealed to the public to avoid social and family gatherings after the government shied away from introducing UK-style restrictions, despite rising alarm over France’s accelerating surge in coronavirus cases.
Alarmed by the record daily tally of more than 10,500 new infections on Saturday, leading doctors made the call in an open letter published in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper on Sunday.
“Avoid private gatherings as much as possible,” they wrote, citing the example of Birmingham’s ban on households mixing. “Limit the number of people present. Postpone them where possible.”
Stressing that the pandemic is “entering a new phase”, they added: “There is probably little time left to act collectively.”
The government of President Emmanuel Macron came under fire from doctors for its “chaotic” approach to the coronavirus after choosing to avoid new national restrictions that would likely prove unpopular. With deaths still relatively low compared to the peak of the epidemic in March and April, many members of the public think further restrictions are unnecessary.
A government source said: “Some ministers wanted at least local lockdowns, but there is an acknowledgement that France just can’t afford to shut down the economy again, even if it would only apply to the regions worst hit by the virus.”
Jean Castex, the prime minister, clearly mindful of the public mood and the need to shelter France’s already battered economy, avoided new national coercive measures, appealing instead to people’s “sense of responsibility and civic duty”.
Mr Castex, who himself had to self-isolate earlier this month after testing positive, said: “We will have to learn to live with the virus for the next few months.”
Mr Macron said the government’s strategy was “to make [people] responsible without blaming or infantilising them”.
But doctors are criticising its failure to follow scientific advice to introduce new restrictions, with 42 of France’s 101 "départements", or administrative regions, now classified as "red zones" where the virus is circulating actively.
“Individual responsibility is important but it isn’t enough,” said William Dab, a former head of the national health agency.
Le Journal du Dimanche, France’s main national Sunday paper, ran a front-page headline labelling the government’s approach as “le grand bazar”, a phrase that roughly translates as “total chaos”.
After a three-hour crisis meeting of key ministers on Friday, the prime minister asked local authorities to come up with measures appropriate for their regions this week.
But the strategy is backfiring, with many regional leaders and officials across the country now demanding a national plan, not wanting to risk public anger over further restrictions.
The move to shift responsibility to local authorities followed a backlash in France’s second city, Marseille, over the central government's decision last month to make facemasks compulsory outdoors. Marseille is worst hit by France’s spike in infections, but both the mayor and the senator of the traditionally contrarian Mediterranean city objected to what they saw as Paris dictating to them without adequate consultation.
“Facemasks were imposed on us from Paris without even bothering to ask our opinion or provide us with resources such as extra police to enforce the rule,” said Samia Ghali, the Marseille senator.
The government source said: “Elected local officials have to decide what they want. They can’t say they want Paris to stop deciding everything and then demand national regulations.”
Renaud Muselier, the president of the southern French region encompassing Marseille, said on Sunday: “We won’t accept another lockdown. People wouldn’t comply.”
He acknowledged that southerners were crowding together on café terraces and beaches. He said he would propose on Monday that social distancing and masks be enforced more strictly, with cafés, bars or restaurants failing to comply to be ordered to close for a month. Beaches may be ordered to close by 8pm and people barred from travelling more than 60 miles from their homes, he said.