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
(Photo by Lou BENOIST / AFP)

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.

READ ALSO French PM calls on commuters to wear masks as Covid cases rise

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. 

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Minister demands Paris officials order striking refuse collectors back to work

With refuse piling up on the streets, France’s Interior Minister has called on Paris officials to enact a controversial and rarely used power to force striking waste collectors in the capital back to work.

Minister demands Paris officials order striking refuse collectors back to work

Nine days into the refuse workers’ walkout in Paris over pension reform, the French government has decided to step in – risking a public spat with the capital’s City Hall, which declares that forcing workers back would contravene the right to strike, a fundamental principle which is enshrined in the French constitution.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin instructed City Hall to engage rarely-used emergency powers to force strikers back to work to clear the near-7,000 tonnes of uncollected garbage lining the streets of the capital.

Darmanin told the Paris police chief to ask the Mayor’s office to ‘réquisition’ staff to clean up the mess littering the city streets.

Réquisition powers allows local préfets to compel workers to return to work, on pain of a €10,000 fine or six months in prison. The power can be invoked only in certain conditions, such as when national security or stability is threatened by strike action which undermines the infrastructure. 

The government used the same powers last October to end blockades of oil refineries that had seen fuel stations across the country run dry, although the power is regarded very much as a ‘last resort’.

If the city council “does not respond to the requisition, the state will take over” to empty the bins and clean-up the streets, Darmanin added.

The Ministry said the decision was made for “health” reasons, after Rachida Dati, the right-wing mayor of the capital’s seventh arrondissement and a former Justice Minister, had written to Darminin directly, asking him to intervene.

Dati told BFMTV: “I don’t dispute the right to strike (…) but if  [refuse collectors] endanger the population, then it’s no longer a right.”

Darminin’s call came a matter of hours after Paris’s deputy mayor Emmanuel Grégoire had told journalists that City Hall was not planning to order striking refuse workers back to work.

Grégoire said: “Requisition would not work, we do not believe in it … we are not going against the exercise of the right to strike as long as there is no danger to the lives of others or to public health, and we’re making sure that’s not the case. 

“The state can requisition if it wants to. It doesn’t need mayors asking for it.”

City Hall manages refuse collection services for half of Paris’s arrondissements and said it was “in solidarity” with the protests against pension reform, of which the current strike is part.

But, Grégoire added that it is “putting in place palliative measures” that offer “more than a minimum service”.

He said that 23,000 tonnes of the 30,000 tonnes generated in Paris during the strike period had been collected.

Parisian refuse collectors voted on Tuesday to continue the movement at least until Monday, March 20th. A number of other cities, including Nantes and Bourges, are also dealing with refuse worker strikes. If the reform is passed, refuse workers will retire at 59 rather than the current 57.

Regional health officials are monitoring the situation, and have urged people in the capital to be extra vigilant about hygiene, calling for “an effort by everyone to temporarily reduce the production of waste, and the volume of this waste”.

Waste collectors’ strikes are not particularly uncommon in France and there were similar scenes in Paris in 2020, without the threat of requisition being used. It appears that the call has been made only for Paris at present, and not for other cities where waste collectors are on strike. 

The Ile-de-France’s Agence Régionale de Santé (ARS) said: “If previous experience did not seem to lead to an epidemic or an imminent danger to public health, it remains necessary, as for any exceptional situation, to strengthen health surveillance.”

It said it had increased its, “level of vigilance (…) concerning any unusual increase in pathologies possibly linked to the situation” and is in contact with local pest-control agencies.