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Why is it not obligatory to wear a mask in France?

Wearing a mask in France is not obligatory - except on public transport - despite recommendations from medical institution l'Académie de Médecine and the support of several mayors. We explore why.

Wearing a mask to protect against Covid-19 is compulsory on public transport and in “areas where social distancing rules cannot be guaranteed” - such as in enclosed shops.

Yet, the government has stopped short of making masks obligatory everywhere.

On May 7, when explaining his deconfinement plan, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said: “This is not the choice that we have made. When you are walking by yourself in the street or in the countryside, masks have no immediate benefit.”

Compulsory masks?

Yet, many among the scientific community have suggested that wearing masks should be compulsory.

On April 22, l'Académie de Médecine published a recommendation entitled “Aux masques citoyens! ('To your masks, citizens!', in an apparent play on words of the French national anthem, whose lyrics include “Aux armes citoyens!”).

The release said: “In the absence of an effective vaccine and medicine against SARS-CoV-2, the only way of fighting is to stop the spread of the virus from person to person.”

The group has said it is disappointed that the government has not made mask-wearing compulsory. It said that even though the virus appears to be offering some “respite”, it could still continue to spread and cause “several thousand new infections, including several hundred extra hospitalisations and several dozen more deaths”.

Other experts have also called for it to be obligatory to wear masks in public areas.

Yves Buisson, director of the Covid-19 group at medical institution l'Académie Nationale de Médecine, said: “People didn’t really hear us. It has been clearly shown that if everyone covers their face and nose with a mask, you can reduce the spread considerably. You always have to do it - and during deconfinement, it is even more necessary.”

Dr. Philippe Juvin, mayor of La Garenne-Colombes (Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France), and head of emergency at the European Research Hospital Georges Pompidou in Paris, has also been an outspoken supporter of masks.

As far back as April 19, he told news service FranceInfo: “French people must wear a mask now and during deconfinement [from May 11]. A mask is better than nothing, even a homemade one. It is better to cover the mouth and nose.”

In an interview with scientific magazine Science, George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that the lack of masks in Western countries was a problem.

He said: “The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role. You’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. 

“Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”

Alternative measures

Yet the government has stopped short of making masks compulsory everywhere, except on public transport and in shops.

French health authority la Direction Générale de la Santé (DGS) told FranceInfo: “Still today, the best tools of protection in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic are barrier measures and wearing a mask among the general public, when the minimum physical distance of one metre cannot be maintained.”

The government appears to be deferring to the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the issue, as the WHO is more cautious about recommending masks as obligatory.

In a statement on April 6, the WHO said that masks can, in some cases, be counterproductive, and “give people a false sense of security”, and cause “negligence” of other measures, such as physical distancing and good hygiene.

The WHO also says that among populations that are not used to wearing masks, they can actually cause more problems, as wearers may be more likely to touch their face to adjust it, which can cause them to spread the virus.

Local support

Some local authorities have come out more in favour of masks than the national government.

Mayor of Nice (Alpes-Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur), Christian Estrosi, has been an outspoken supporter, and has imposed a decree making masks obligatory “as soon as physical distancing cannot be guaranteed”, for everyone “aged 11 and over”.

He said: “I cite the Académie de Médecine: ‘To be effective, wearing a mask must be widespread in public spaces.’ We must make deconfinement a success, and this will happen through barrier gestures, physical distancing, and wearing a mask.”

In Bordeaux (Nouvelle-Aquitaine), local authorities have imposed similar measures, making masks obligatory at bus and train stops, in public service areas, and busy spaces.

Fabien Robert, first deputy mayor, told FranceInfo that the rules especially applied “on two very busy shopping streets, rue Sainte-Catherine and rue de la Porte Dijeaux, where physical distancing is not possible”.


Not mandatory

Bordeaux has not made masks obligatory as a rule, although it does recommend them.

Mr Robert said: “We discussed it with the prefect, the State authorities, and the national police, and we came to the conclusion that making it mandatory for everyone was not the best solution.”

The city sent a voice recording to 160,000 Bordeaux residents, explaining that “wearing a mask is compulsory in certain areas, but that we [also] invite them to wear a mask as soon as they leave their house”.

Similarly, Yann Cucherat, a mayoral tourism assistant in charge of the logistics and distribution of masks, explained that imposing harsh rules on the population as a rule was not seen as a good idea.

He said: “I think that everyone has suffered enough during two months of confinement. We must pass on a message of prevention, but I am not sure that punishments and repression are a good solution.”

He explained why the city has stopped short of making masks compulsory everywhere, saying: “[Making masks obligatory everywhere] would make no sense if we could not sanction offenders. [But] in busy shopping streets, where there are a lot of people, we can check, prevent, and punish [if necessary].”

However, he did not rule out “rolling out this obligation” everywhere if necessary, in future.

Legal standing

In France, health measures such as this must come from the State, and mayors are only legally permitted to “adjust these measures”.

Malik Salemkour, president of human rights group la Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH), said: “[Mayors] can add to measures, as long as their decisions are specific and proportionate. Some mayors have had to back down, because they went too far, and prefects intervened.”

Mayor of Nice Mr Estrosi was summoned to court by LDH, after he attempted to make mask-wearing obligatory for everyone, everywhere, in his commune.

Lawyer for LDH, Me Spinosi, said: “The mayor of Nice issued a decree, which he publicised, but it was illegal. To avoid it being cancelled, he annulled it, and instead issued a decree that is a copy of the Prime Minister’s [national] decree, and we will not attack that.”

The LDH also achieved a similar court decision against a decree issued by the town of Sceaux (Hauts-de-Seine), on the grounds that local authorities cannot interfere with health measures taken by the national government.

Tougher rules?

Some have suggested that the national government should toughen the rules.

Mr Cucherat, in Lyon, said: “Maybe it would have been better for the government to tell the public that wearing a mask is obligatory as soon as social distancing becomes impossible.”

But even in Paris, authorities are aware that they do not have the power to impose such a blanket measure.

First deputy mayor of the capital, Emmanuel Grégoire, said that such decisions must be made at a national level.

He said: “The best way to legally ensure this measure is to take a decision at a national level. We would support an extension [of current rules] where it makes sense - but not everywhere - wherever it makes sense in context.”

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