‘General public’ masks should be widely available from May 11 and, as lockdown ends, are recommended as part of measures to limit the spread of Covid-19.
They will be sold in pharmacies and shops and online by La Poste (for firms). Mairies will oversee some free distribution, with the state paying half the costs.
Masks will be obligatory on public transport including in taxis that do not have a plexiglass barrier. Shops will be able to require customers to wear masks to enter, if they wish.
It is a change from earlier official advice in France which said masks were not necessary and could be harmful as they create a false sense of security and people forget social distancing.
The government says medical advice is constantly evolving and it is adapting.
It is important that masks do not replace “barrier gestures”, such as hand-washing and physical distancing. They are designed to complement these.
Until now, there have been two official mask types: FFP2, which are highly filtering in both directions; and “surgical”, mostly providing protection for others from you passing on the virus.
Increasing use has been made of artisanal (home-made) masks. Now there is a third kind, grand public or “alternative”, made to standards certified by state defence agency the Dir-ection Générale de l’Armement.
France aims to make 17million a week by May and they should be worn in workplaces where physical distancing is difficult. Firms are encouraged to distribute them and if possible to organise shifts at different times.
It is claimed the masks can filter, to some extent, droplets that are breathed or coughed out by infected people in both directions. They will be made from fabric, washable – at 60C for half an hour – and reusable. They will have two certifications – one suited to those in close contact with the public in work, filtering 90% of droplets of the usual size, and another filtering 70%.
They will carry a round blue, white and red logo saying ‘filtration garantie’ plus wording on how many times the mask can be washed (five to 30).
FSPF pharmacy union chief Philippe Besset said in his view, the masks are a protection for others, as only FFP2 ones effectively filter droplets from entering. Some cities have already been distributing free masks, including Poitiers and Nice.
In Nice, two washable masks, meeting both new standards, are available for residents to order at masques.nice.fr. They are usually picked up at a collection point.
The city’s mayor, Christian Estrosi, hopes to make them obligatory in public spaces but top administrative court the Conseil d’Etat has ruled that mayors cannot unilaterally impose obligatory wear.
A spokesman for the mairie said they will wait for the state’s recommendations on what is possible. “We’ve ordered 900,000 masks from five French comp-anies,” he said. Each can be worn for up to six hours at a time, and they are washable 10 times.
Stocks are also being sent to mairies in the wider Nice-Côte d’Azur metropolitan area.
“Other communes and intercommunal bodies have done it too. The mayor of Cannes has set up a factory to make their own masks,” he said.
Anthropologist Frédéric Keck of the CNRS research body said the French will find it hard to adapt to mask-wearing.
Firstly it will seem contradictory, as people were previously told they were unnecessary, and ministers have not been seen to wear them consistently.
There is also a clash with the debate over face scarves, including the 2011 niqab ban.
He added: “In China [where they are partly worn as pollution protection] masks are worn all the time. It is seen as modern, respectful and eco-friendly. The French, since the Revolution, consider that the modern citizen presents themself transparently, with face uncovered.
“Cloth over it is seen as archaic and submissive – showing the face uncovered is a sign of modernity and liberation.”