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article imageMacron poised to soften lockdown as virus caseload drops

By J├╝rgen HECKER (AFP)     Nov 24, 2020 in World

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce lighter coronavirus restrictions on Tuesday thanks to a recent drop in new infections, paving the way for shops to reopen swiftly and allow travel for Christmas.

In an evening television address, Macron began outlining France's strategy to procure coronavirus vaccines as trial successes reported by some laboratories spark a worldwide scramble for Covid shots.

"At this point, we will see a slight relaxing of the lockdown," Prime Minister Jean Castex told leaders of Macron's LREM party hours before the president's primetime appearance, participants told AFP.

Only moments before the president's address started, France's health agency reported 458 new coronavirus deaths over the past 24 hours, taking the total to 50,237.

Beyond practical measures, a longer-term plan for dealing with coronavirus is now needed, Macron himself said at the weekend.

"Nothing is worse than uncertainty and the impression of ambient gloom with no end in sight," he told the JDD Sunday newspaper.

The second virus wave reached its peak last week, French health authorities said, with numbers of new infections, new hospital admissions and new intensive care patients all declining, while death figures have stabilised.

Shops are widely expected to be cleared for reopening next week, in time for the Christmas shopping period which is crucial for many retailers who have been lobbying hard for a return to business.

Castex said last week that a reopening of shops "around December 1" was on the cards thanks to the falling number of new cases, but added that strict health protocols would have to be followed.

Government spokesman Gabriel Attal, meanwhile, traced "three stages" in the government's coming strategy to ease virus restrictions: "First around December 1, then before the end-year holidays and then again from January 2021," he told JDD.

- 'Covid factories' -

The two-week school holiday around Christmas and New Year is a peak travel period in France, not just for extended family gatherings, but also for ski trips to popular resorts in the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Ski resorts will be told "within 10 days" whether they can kick off the season, Castex's office said Monday.

Macron is to outline the conditions under which travel will be allowed, with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian saying France needed to distinguish between "wishful thinking and reality".

The government would only be able to relax travel restrictions further "if we get lucky and developments are positive", Le Drian said.

Castex added Tuesday that he was worried about New Year parties which he called potential "Covid factories".

The government has been tightlipped about any reopening of cinemas, theatres and sports facilities.

Attal said, however, that bars, cafes and restaurants -- which have been completely shut except for takeaway and delivery options -- would "continue to be placed under restrictions".

Some opposition politicians have pushed for a much faster lifting of restrictions, but Macron's coronavirus policies appear to be gaining support among voters.

According to an Ifop poll this week, his approval rating has risen to 41 percent from 38 percent, and stands above the ratings of his predecessors Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy at the same point in their presidential mandate.

According to spokesman Attal, France has already signed three vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical companies, while talks with three others were "at a very advanced stage" and other discussions ongoing.

Each contract signed would cover about 30 million vaccine doses, Attal said.

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