PARIS (Reuters) - France tiptoed out of its strict coronavirus lockdown on Monday, allowing non-essential shops, factories and other businesses to reopen for the first time in eight weeks to help resuscitate the economy despite the risk of a second wave of infections.
With the world’s fifth highest official death toll, France is also reopening schools in phases and its 67 million people can now leave home without government paperwork, although documentation is still needed for rush-hour travel around Paris.
Theatres, restaurants and bars will remain closed until at least June with authorities wary of the peril of new outbreaks emerging - highlighted by a scramble in South Korea to contain a cluster of cases linked to nightclubs.
“Everyone’s a little bit nervous. Wow! We don’t know where we’re headed but we’re off,” said Marc Mauny, a hair stylist who opened his salon in western France at the stroke of midnight.
In Paris, boutiques on the Champs Elysees opened their doors to the public for the first time since March 17. In metro stations, staff handed out face-masks and sanitizer to commuters while stickers on train seats marked out social distancing.
The capital’s La Defense business district was largely deserted as most employees continued to work from home.
Only 10-15% of staff were expected back in their glass towers, a number expected to rise to 25% in June and 70% by September, said Marie-Celie Guillaume, head of the state agency Paris La Defense which manages the district’s public spaces.
“We’re headed for a very slow, gradual return,” she told Reuters.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government lifted one of Europe’s toughest lockdowns after the rate of infection slowed and the number of patients in intensive care fell to less than half the peak seen in April.
The virus has claimed 26,380 lives in France.
Manufacturing plants can reopen providing they put safety measures in place, which for some means not running at full capacity. People can only travel up to 100 km (62 miles) unless for professional reasons, funerals or caring for the sick.
Trade unions and opposition parties have underscored the risks that COVID-19 infections will pick up again, particularly in places where distancing is difficult such as schools.
Health Minister Olivier Veran warned the government would reverse the relaxing of restrictions if infections spiked again.
“If the virus were to resume its wild race, we would again impose lockdown measures,” Veran told BFM television.
In the Riviera resort of Cannes, whose now-postponed annual film festival had been due to start on Tuesday, police chased a dozen surfers out of the waves, but did not issue fines. Beaches remain off-limits along much of the Mediterranean coast.
“(Being out on the water), that’s the dream!” cried one surfer underneath the esplanade’s palm trees. “It’s almost worth the 135-euro fine,” laughed another.
Macron is eager to rescue an economy in freefall. The euro zone’s second biggest economy is forecast to contract 8% this year, and joins countries globally scrambling to rebuild supply chains.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on Monday said French carmakers, hit hard by the coronavirus downturn, must bring more production back to France in exchange for government aid.
His ministry is preparing sector-specific recovery plans for the struggling tourism, aerospace and auto industries.
“We are ready to help you,” Le Maire said on BFM Business radio. “In exchange it’s going to be, what’s your relocation plan?”
To help workers return to their jobs, kindergarten and primary schools reopen this week, and junior high schools later in the month in areas where the infection rate is low.
France is split into “green zones” where the infection rate is low and “red zones”, including the greater Paris region, where the rate is higher and more restrictions remain in place. People across the country are advised to work from home if they can.
The public health crisis will leave long-lasting marks in France. Long accustomed to being told their high taxes paid for the best healthcare in the world, the French have been dismayed by the rationing of critical drugs, face masks and equipment.
Reporting by Michel Rose, Richard Lough, Leigh Thomas, Dominique Vidalon, Tangi Salaun and Benoit Van Overstraeten in Paris, Stephan Mahe in Mayenne and Michel Bernouin in Cannes; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Pravin Char and Mark Heinrich