Don’t panic, French prime minister says, as infections mount

PARIS (AP) — France’s prime minister said Wednesday that reopening schools is “one of the essential conditions” for a restart of the country’s economy, which is hobbled like elsewhere by the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite confirmed virus cases rising, Jean Castex insisted that France needs to return to work as well and avoid “falling into an economic and social crisis that would be much more dangerous than the health crisis.”

Speaking on France-Inter radio, and later at an annual forum of an association of business chiefs, Medef, Castex urged compatriots to wear masks more but insisted that rising coronavirus infections across the country are “nothing to panic about.”

Still, he told the Medef meeting that “we are ready” in a worst-case scenario, while “doing everything to avoid a general reconfinement.”

France reported 5,429 new confirmed cases Wednesday in the past 24 hours, far below the crisis levels that French hospitals faced in March and April. But the figure was more than 2,000 cases higher than a day earlier. Neighboring countries are requiring quarantines for visitors from parts or all of France.

There has also been a small but steady uptick in the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

While he acknowledged in his radio interview that wearing a mask all the time is “a little annoying,” Castex urged people protesting mask requirements “to think of others, hospital workers, medical workers, vulnerable people. … It’s not because you feel invincible that you can go (and) contaminate others.”

Castex said France is looking for a return to school “in conditions as normal as possible.”

“Our schools will resume, must resume,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told journalists separately Wednesday, pushing ahead with the start of term on Sept. 1.

“We will benefit from the experience of May and June,” when French schools partially reopened after a two-month lockdown, he said.

In the event of new outbreaks, authorities could take localized measures to close classes or schools. But Blanquer said the government wouldn’t publish all its preparatory measures until after school resumes.

All middle school and high school students will be required to wear masks whenever they are in school, as well as all personnel, in line with World Health Organization recommendations.

As for returning to the office, the prime minister said France is striving for a balance between presence at work and working from home.

Castex urged a careful return to cultural venues, pledging 2 billion euros for the French culture industry to help it survive a plunge in revenues for museums, movie theaters and other sites. The money will be part of a 100 billion-euro ($118 billion) economic recovery package to be unveiled next week.

“It’s imperative that we get the engine running again,” Castex said at the Medef forum.

Without providing details, he said the recovery package would “very largely” be directed at French regions, including much-neglected rural zones, and a balance would be struck between large and small companies. The tax on production will be lowered by 10 billion euros a year and there will be a reform of real estate taxes on local industries, he said.

More than 30,500 people with the virus have died in France.

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Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

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Follow AP pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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