Will France bring back mandatory mask-wearing?

France's public health watchdog is reportedly "studying" the possibility of bringing back compulsory face coverings on public transport - we look at what happens next and what Covid rules remain in place this autumn.

Will France bring back mandatory mask-wearing?
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne adjusts her face mask during a session of questions to the government at The National Assembly in Paris on July 19, 2022. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

Amid its eighth wave of Covid-19, the return of mandatory masking in certain places is “under study” by French health watchdog, Covars. 

Face-coverings have remained compulsory in a few specific places – such as hospitals – but since May have only been “strongly recommended” on public transport.

Now experts disagree on whether a return would be possible. The question is legally complicated, as France is no longer in a state of emergency, and the law that allowed the government to make masking mandatory (le loi relative à la gestion de la sortie de crise sanitaire) expired on August 1st. 

Since May, masks have been ‘recommended‘ rather than ‘required’ on public transport and only remained compulsory in hospitals and other health centres.

In the airplanes, masking “remains nevertheless recommended”, as indicated on the Paris airport website.

Trains have similar messaging – as SNCF also says wearing masks are “strongly recommended in our stations and in our trains.” The Paris public transport service RATP also “strongly recommends” that passengers wear masks, although in reality few do.

Only hospital directors, doctors and pharmacies have retained the right to require masks to be worn.

According to RFI, obligatory masking “could be made compulsory again in the form of ministerial or prefectural decrees, depending on the evolution or degradation of the health situation; if a new problematic variant of the virus is identified.”

However, legal experts disagree on the methods France could use make masks obligatory again, as well as how likely such a measure would be.

Legal expert Guillaume de Durat told Le Parisien that he does not see any legislative avenue to reinforce compulsory masking, outside of care settings.

De Durat speculated that if Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne wanted to require face coverings on public transport, she might be able to do so by passing an order using “general police power with the risk that the Council of State may oppose it.” 

“There are many opponents to wearing the mask, so there would inevitably be appeals,” he said.

Another legal expert, Serge Slama said that up until now, compulsory face coverings have been required because a legal text authorised doing so (the law placing France in a public health emergency).

However, the legal framework that replaced the loi relative à la gestion de la sortie de crise sanitaire does not mention masking requirements. Additionally, passing a new law could be complicated with the current parliamentary layout, as President Macron’s coalition does not have an absolute majority. 

Lawyer Caroline Lantero told Le Parisien that “it would be necessary to really face a real public health threat for [compulsory masking] to be validated.” 

The Covid-19 situation in France

On Tuesday, the French health authority, Santé publique France, recorded 21 percent rise in positive coronavirus tests when compared to the previous week. 

Hopsitalisations are also on the rise – 49 percent higher on Tuesday, October 4th when compared to last week’s figures.

As a result, the Minister of Health, François Braun, said on Tuesday evening that the new public health watchdog, Covars (Comité de veille et d’anticipation des risques sanitaires), which replaced the Scientific Council, was studying the return of mandatory masking in certain places, such as public transport.

Brigitte Autran, the head of Covars, said that France should “take cues from Asian populations who have been wearing masks for a very long time” and that doing so “should become a kind of civic gesture.”

While she said there is “no obligation” currently, Covars of the mandatory mask in certain places was “under study” in the new scientific committee. 

What is the government recommending?

Several French government officials, including Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, have recommended continued mask-wearing.

Borne said over the summer that people should wear masks “in closed spaces, where there are many people, particularly in [public] transport.”

In addition to masking, the French government is tackling rising Covid-19 rates by beginning its fall vaccination campaign for vulnerable populations.

READ MORE: France launches autumn Covid booster campaign with new dual-strain vaccine

As of October 3rd, dual-strain Omicron adapted vaccines became available for use amongst certain groups. You can read more if you qualify HERE.

What about France’s neighbours?

Germany decided to make it compulsory to wear a FFP2 mask in long-distance trains on October 1st.

In addition, each German state has the possibility to impose it in other types of public transport, such as the subway and the bus.

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France declares epidemic as flu cases soar

The French health authority has declared a flu epidemic, while the country also faces a new wave of Covid cases and bronchitis is affecting young children.

France declares epidemic as flu cases soar

Santé publique France made the declaration of an epidemic on Wednesday, adding that three deaths have been recorded due to flu, while 20 patients are in intensive care.

With Covid-19 and bronchitis cases also currently high, health experts have urged people to get vaccinated – especially those over 65. “It is important for people at risk to be vaccinated against flu without delay,” insisted Santé publique France.

READ ALSO Flu vaccine opens to all adults in France: What you need to know

Cases have hit full epidemic levels in Brittany and Normandy, while the virus is in pre-epidemic phase in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Grand Est, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Centre-Val de Loire, Hauts-de-France and Île-de-France, with an increasing number of people heading to hospitals’ emergency departments with influenza-like illness. It is expected to cross over to epidemic levels in the coming days and weeks.

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It has already hit French overseas territories including Martinique, Mayotte and Reunion.

Flu has hit epidemic levels much earlier than last season, when it did not peak until early Spring.