Making sense of France’s contradictory Covid-19 social rules

Overlap between rights, laws and health advice has led to confusing and contradictory Covid-19 health regulations for social gatherings in France. We explain.

25 September 2020
People clincking glasses at a party with gold confetti. Making sense of France’s contradictory Covid-19 social rulesWeddings with up to 200 guests are still allowed in private venues in France as local authorities do not have the power to restrict them.
By Joanna York

One example of how confusing the guidelines can be is the current health regulations for weddings. In France, couples getting married can invite up to 10 guests at the Mairie, up to 60 in a church and up to 200 in a private venue.

The range in regulation is a result of a complex balance of laws, rights and Covid-19 health advice that is currently governing life in France.

Restricting private spaces unconstitutional

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the government only has the power to restrict social gatherings in public places, not in private places. 

A specialist in public law told news source Le Figaro: “This is because legislators did not predict the need for this in any legal texts such as the law from May 23 declaring a state of health emergency, or that of July 9 specifying the exit from the state of health emergency.”

The specialist said: “If they tried to introduce the possibility of limiting gatherings in living spaces, legislators would come up against the difficulty of respecting any bans when the inviolability of domestic spaces is practically a constitutional right.”

This leaves mayors, prefects and regional presidents with little power to regulate parties or marriages taking place in private spaces. 

As such, local authorities in France have been left feeling the way when it comes to imposing new health laws. 

While the decree from July 9 gave them extensive powers to impose new laws as they saw fit to regulate their local health situation, in reality, they do not always have the constitutional right to do so.

 

All public places not considered equal

The same principle of constitutional rights in France led to the loosening of restrictions to allow religious ceremonies towards the end of confinement. Early in France’s 2-month confinement religious ceremonies were banned, but French law guarantees the right to freedom of worship giving those who wished to worship legal recourse.

However, the French law becomes harder to regulate when it comes to gatherings in spaces such as cemeteries, which are both public and religious spaces. 

Such loopholes and legalities have led to scenarios such as the French Open tennis tournament, exceptionally running from September 21 – October 11 this year, having severely restricted visitor numbers even though the whole tournament will take place outside. 

Meanwhile, French courthouses continue to hold trials in front of public audiences, even though they often take place in small, confined rooms.

Science also intersects with the law to throw up some seemingly-contradictory regulations. 

When it comes to exercise, dance halls and gyms are much more likely to be regulated than swimming pools. This is because the virus is more likely to be transmitted through the air than water, making it riskier to run or dance in close proximity to other people than to swim with them.

And another exception – public spaces that are “social utilities” such as schools and universities have the right to a level of autonomy in how they manage their space and the public that passes through them.

Government may lean on law less 

When Health Minister Olivier Véran announced new restrictions and a new map assessing risk levels throughout France on September 23, he did not announce any new laws to go with them.

Some are seeing this as a sign of the government attempting to streamline the system. 

Serge Slama, professor of law and public rights at Grenoble University, told Le Figaro: “In the same way that there does not need to be a vote for new laws or to launch anti-terrorism regulations, two new intermediary zones have been created by public powers thanks to the July 9 law that prolonged the state of health emergency.”

“This allows for regulations to be made tighter without decreeing the health crisis that led to the state of health emergency and to total confinement.”

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