Coronavirus: Lockdown bites poor as France eases grip

By Lucy Williamson
BBC Paris correspondent

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Image caption, Madame Ouattara, whose husband lost his job in the lockdown, is among those queuing at a Montmartre food bank in Paris

Behind a faded door, in a side-street near Montmartre, a long straggly queue is starting to form. In Paris under lockdown, hotels and restaurants may be deserted but food banks are getting busier.

Women with pushchairs, men with umbrellas, everyone a metre apart; there's very little talking.

The government will set out on Thursday how it plans to lift restrictions on movement on Monday. But for many the damage from one of Europe's strictest lockdowns has been done.

This centre, one of a network run by the charity Les Restos du Coeur (restaurants of the heart), saw a 40% rise in subscriptions last week.

Image caption, New groups of Parisians have been joining the food queues in the 18th district

Director François Coadour expects the numbers to keep rising and says the profile of his clients is changing.

"We have workers, precarious workers, people who were moonlighting, and part-time workers," he told me. "These are people we didn't see before."

Clients here used to choose their own food from the shelves inside the centre; now they're simply handed a bag of goods through an open door.

Image caption, The French economy has been battered by the lockdown and may take some time to recover

I meet a young woman waiting in the queue, who introduces herself as Madame Ouattara.

Even behind her mask, her face wears a gentle smile. She tells me she began coming here last month after the lockdown left her husband out of work. They ate through their savings in weeks.

What will happen to France's economy?

France's biggest economic players have also been badly hit by coronavirus: tourism, construction and manufacturing in particular.

The economy shrank by almost 6% in the first part of this year.

Philippe Martin, an economist at the prestigious Sciences-Po University and an adviser to President Emmanuel Macron, says the construction industry in France was hit more harshly than in other heavily confined countries such as Italy, and that conditions for restarting work were also tougher here.

But he also questions whether financial support packages offered by the government, such as "partial unemployment benefit", may have helped to slow the economy too: "Because this system was quite generous," he said, "it may have pushed some firms to close down, rather than keep trying to produce, because the full wages were paid by the [government]."

Others believe the high losses felt by France are a sign of its efficiency in policing the lockdown.

Jean-Claude Trichet
We have medically triggered an artificial coma of all our economies. And France is very good at that because it's totally centralised
Jean-Claude Trichet
Ex-president, European Central Bank

The impact on the future economy here is likely to be severe - the worst recession since World War Two, as the government put it.

It's also expected to hit Italy, Spain and Greece very hard.

Germany and Austria, meanwhile, seem to have escaped relatively lightly, leading some to question whether this crisis could create fatal cracks in the eurozone.

Jean-Claude Trichet, who ran the European Central Bank during the last financial crisis, says he's been through this kind of "stress test" before: "I was permanently told, 'You will explode the euro, it will evaporate, the euro area will disappear,'" he said.

"We did not disappear, as you know, but on top of that, four new countries decided to enter the euro area after [the collapse of] Lehman Brothers. The resilience of this historical project is very, very high, and I am absolutely convinced that will prove true in the future."

How France will ease restrictions on 11 May

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave details of the changes on Thursday. The plan is to divide the country into red and green zones, with different rules for different places.

Image source, French health ministry

"From Monday we will progressively unwind the lockdown that started on 17 March... but the country is cut in two, with the virus circulating more quickly in some regions, notably in the Paris region, which is very densely populated," the prime minister said.

Image caption, Paris will probably be one of the red zones, with the tightest restrictions

France's borders will remain closed, as will its hotels and restaurants.

France has seen 25,809 deaths in hospitals and care homes, and reported 278 deaths in the past 24 hours on Wednesday.

Paris is classified as red, along with three other regions. Of more than 23,000 patients in hospital, almost 10,000 are in the Paris area.

Geneviève Rossillon runs almost a dozen tourist sites around France and says the country needs a "psychological boost" from the government.

"Obviously when you hear what Italy has been saying last week, they have been saying 'we are ready to welcome everybody from this summer'," she says. "It's not the message France is sending so far."

Image caption, Geneviève Rossillon, president of Kléber Rossillon,

France's approach to lifting the lockdown may be localised, detailed and bureaucratic but the message after almost two months of confinement is changing: don't stay at home.

A new mantra for the nation's economic health.

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