France may ease coronavirus curbs on worship earlier than planned: premier

PARIS (Reuters) - Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Monday said France might allow religious services to resume before the end of May if a gradual easing of lockdown rules from May 11 did not result in the rate of coronavirus infections increasing.

FILE PHOTO - French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe reacts at a news conference at Hotel Matignon, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Paris, France April 19, 2020. Thibault Camus/Pool via REUTERS

In a week’s time, secular France plans to join countries such as Italy, Spain and Germany in relaxing unprecedented curbs on public life as it seeks to reboot its economy and ease the frustration of citizens cooped up in their homes.

The government had indicated religious ceremonies would be banned until June 2 at the earliest, but Philippe told the Senate this might be advanced by four days.

“Many faiths have made proposals to reconcile how their meetings are held with social distancing rules,” the prime minister told the Senate. “I know the May 29 - June 1 period is for several faiths an important date on the religious calendar.”

The Christian holy day of Pentecost, celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday, falls on June 1. A week earlier, and before the government has said it might allow religious festivities, Muslims mark Eid, the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Last week, Philippe said the lockdown had saved tens of thousands of lives but that now was the time to ease it. Schools will progressively reopen and businesses will be free to resume operations, though restaurants, cafes and beaches will remain closed until at least June.

It will be preferable for people to wear a mask when they leave their homes, and mandatory when travelling on public transport or in a taxi, Philippe said.

Philippe sought on Monday to defuse a dispute between parts of the medical profession and big retailers after several medical associations accused supermarkets of hoarding face masks early in the crisis while doctors on the frontline went short.

The supermarket chains have denied hiding tens of millions of masks and say it is only now that orders are arriving on shelves.

“I struggle to understand what interest the supermarkets would have hiding stocks of masks instead of selling them at a time of shortage,” Philippe told senators.

“There were never any hidden stocks. There were massive orders and it takes time for these orders to materialise into millions of masks on sale in stores for citizens.”

Reporting by Marine Pennetier; Editing by Richard Lough and Grant McCool