Covid-19: France declares state of health emergency

France has declared a state of health emergency for two months, after MPs and Senators agreed on an urgent law to battle Covid-19 this weekend.

23 March 2020
The state of emergency has been voted through by a group of MPs and Senators
By Connexion journalist

The law is set to come into force immediately, and will be approved imminently, firstly by the Senate and secondly by the Assemblée Nationale.

How long will it last?

So far, it has been declared in place for two months. 

However, it is important to note that declaring a state of emergency is not the same as formally extending the confinement period.

It merely puts the legal framework in place for the government to act for the stated time period.

The government has not yet (at the time of writing) made an announcement about the possible extension of the confinement period.

An announcement on this is expected later today (Monday March 23).

Read more: Report Monday re length of lockdown in France
Read more: France confinement ‘likely’ extended to six weeks

What does a state of health emergency mean?

Declaring a state of health emergency legalises the government’s ability to restrict civil liberties, such as extending or adapting the period of confinement, continuing to close schools, and allow it to quickly introduce other measures designed to slow the spread of Covid-19.

How has it been decided?

It was agreed by a mixed group of seven MPs and seven senators, in what is known as la Commission Mixte Paritaire (CMP, “mixed equal commission”). The group also based their decisions on advice from a scientific committee.

What does it mean in practice?

It will give legal backing to many of the restrictions already in place across France. For example, the Prime Minister will legally be able to act by decree to:

  • Restrict or forbid the movement of people or vehicles
  • Stop people leaving their homes unless strictly necessary for family or health needs
  • Impose quarantine on infected or likely-to-be-infected people
  • Move and/or isolate infected people
  • Order the temporary closure of establishments open to the public, including meeting places, except those that offer essential goods and services
  • Limit or ban public gatherings and meetings
  • Order the requisitioning of goods necessary to fight the virus
  • Take temporary measures to control the prices of some necessary products
  • Take any measure necessary to provide medicine and drugs to treat the virus
  • Take by decree any other measure that would restrict commercial freedom
  • Enable police, guards and officers to record and punish infractions

Read more: France official confinement Q&A: English translation
Read more: Beaches closed due to confinement rule breaches

Can the Prime Minister do whatever he wants?

Not completely. Although the state of emergency does give strong legal power to the Prime Minister, who can push measures through by decree, any measures taken can be reviewed or contested by the administrative court.

What happens if anyone breaks the rules?

As is already the case, violations of the rules are punished by a fine of €135 each. In case the same person is caught again within a 15-day period, the fine can rise to as much as €1,500 to €3,000.

If the rules are broken for a third time within a 15-day period, this can be punished by up to six months in prison, plus a fine of €3,750, and community service.

Read more: France issues 4,095 fines for breach of confinement 
Read more: France arrests people for flouting confinement rules

What about the economic aspect?

The state of emergency also allows the government to take, by decree, within three months:

  • Measures to avoid or deal with the economic, social and financial consequences of the epidemic; including Treasury support and extra funds shared throughout the country
  • The ability to delay or spread out rent payments; and delay water, gas and electricity bills
  • Ensure that people continue to receive healthcare insurance and access to healthcare
  • Ensure that people continue to receive payment for healthcare costs, personal housing benefit, child support, and other financial benefits

What does it mean for work?

The measures also allow the government to legally enable companies to:

  • Make it easier for employees to work part-time or remotely
  • Allow the employer to approve paid leave or change holiday dates
  • Change the usual allocation of working days and rest days
  • Deviate from the usual, contractual working hour stipulations, for companies that are particularly necessary for the security, or social and economic functioning of the nation
  • Change deadlines and conditions of payments and bonuses

What happens afterwards?

The scientific committee that helped to agree the measures will be dissolved, once the state of emergency comes to an end. The measures will be lifted by the prime minister as and when judged appropriate.

Schools closed until May?

The move comes as national education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer suggested that schools may be closed until May 4. The minister gave the hypothetical date during an interview with Le Parisien, published on Sunday.

He said: “That would be the ideal scenario.”

During the same debate on Sunday afternoon (March 22), MPs and Senators also agreed to postpone decisions about the second round of municipal elections until May 27. The second round is now not expected to go ahead until at least June.

Stay informed:
Sign up to our free weekly e-newsletter
Subscribe to access all our online articles and receive our printed monthly newspaper The Connexion at your home. News analysis, features and practical help for English-speakers in France

Get news, views and information from France