Notre-Dame renovation teams play catch-up as lockdown eases

PARIS (Reuters) – French renovation teams aim complete work on Notre-Dame Cathedral in time for the fifth anniversary of its 2019 fire despite the COVID-19 lockdown, the project leader said on Sunday, as admirers were allowed back into the adjoining square.

Casual passersby and faithful alike flocked to the Parvis de Notre-Dame as the square reopened with the partial lifting of lockdown restrictions.

The coronavirus pandemic “has unquestionably delayed the work”, said Jean-Louis Georgelin, the army general put in charge of the mammoth rebuilding programme.

But the goal remains to reopen for religious services in April 2024, Georgelin said, standing in front of the closed-off cathedral grounds. “There’s no reason to believe it cannot be met – we’ll have to find a way to catch up.”

The fire that engulfed the 850-year-old building on April 15 last year destroyed its spire and much of the roof. While the final renovation cost remains uncertain, an appeal for funds has raised close to 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion)

Renovation workers returned to the site six weeks after the pandemic halted operations. But health rules that remain in place are still limiting the pace of work, officials say.

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French coronavirus cases jump by 3,325 due to better tracking

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of coronavirus infections in France jumped on the same day the government announced an easing of lockdown rules, but the increase reflected the inclusion of new data rather than a rise in daily infections, the Health Ministry said.

The inclusion of data from a new tracking system boosted the number of confirmed coronavirus cases by 3,325 to 149,071, the biggest increase since a 4,183 increase on May 6, when data from a new laboratory were included.

“The increase compared to yesterday is due to more efficient tracking, not to the epidemiological situation in France,” the ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

It said that from now on France would use a new monitoring system that will allow for more complete tracking.

The ministry did not specify how much the case count had increased on Thursday. On Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases rose by 191, or 0.1%, to 145,555, a lower daily rate of increase than the 0.2% average seen the previous seven days.

The ministry said the virus’ total death toll rose by 66, or 0.2%, to 28,662, the same increase as on Wednesday and the eighth day that the number of deaths remained below 100.

In the first half of April, France reported over 1,000 deaths per day on several days, with a peak of 1,438 on April 15.

The ministry said the number of people in hospital fell by nearly 500, or 3%, to 15,208, and the number of people in intensive care fell by 72, or 4.8%, to 1,429. Both numbers have been on a downtrend since mid-April.

The slowdown in the infection rate and reduced pressure on France’s health system were key factors in the government’s decision to announce further easing of the lockdown rules on Thursday, including the reopening of bars, restaurants and beaches.

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France wants its citizens to holiday at home this summer

PARIS (Reuters) – The French government does not want its citizens to travel abroad this summer and recommends they take their holidays in France, Environment Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Sunday.

Earlier this month, President Emmanuel Macron said it was unlikely that French people would be able to undertake major foreign trips this summer and that even trips within Europe may have to be limited to reduce the risk of a resurgence of the coronavirus epidemic.

Borne, in an interview with France Inter radio, also said that next week the government would decide on possibly loosening rules on French domestic travel, currently limited to a maximum 100 kilometers from home.

She said Paris parks had to remain closed for now, as the capital was still a “red zone” for virus circulation.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has repeatedly called on the government to reopen parks as Parisians, who mostly live in apartments without gardens, tend to congregate around the closed parks where it is difficult to respect social distancing rules.

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Final round of French local elections slated for June 28

PARIS (Reuters) – The final round of France’s local elections has been set for June 28, provided it has not been deemed a health risk due to the coronavirus pandemic, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Friday.

The first round took place just two days before France imposed a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.

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Rwandan genocide suspect Kabuga brought before French court

PARIS (Reuters) – Rwandan genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga was arraigned before a French public prosecutor on Tuesday, three days after police swooped on his hideout in a Paris suburb, ending a 26-year manhunt.

The 84-year-old is accused of funding and arming militias that massacred about 800,000 people. He was indicted in 1997 on seven criminal counts including genocide, all in relation to the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

Kabuga arrived at the Paris Appeals Court complex under heavy police protection. Outriders flanked the convoy and armed officers guarded the entrance. The hearing began about three hours later, a judicial source said.

The prosecutor was to set out the legal process before the case is passed to investigative judges who will decide whether to transfer Kabuga to a U.N. court handling alleged crimes against humanity.

At least one French-based genocide victim support group said it was considering legal action to unearth how Kabuga was able to go underground in France and what help he had received.

“He was our Klaus Barbie, our (Adolf) Eichmann,” said Etienne Nsanzimana, president of support group Ibuka France, referring to two prominent Nazi war criminals.

“How did he stay on the run for 26 years? For how many years was he in France and receiving help to live comfortably. I don’t think it was just his family,” Nsanzimana added.

Reuters has not been able to find any public comment made by Kabuga over the years about the charges. French lawyer Emmanuel Altit, who will be defending Kabuga, did not respond to a request seeking comment from his client.

Some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days of killing from April 6, 1994, orchestrated by the Hutu-led government and its ethnic militia allies.

Kabuga, a Hutu businessman, is accused of bankrolling the militia.

It is not known when or how Kabuga, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, entered France.

France’s justice ministry has said he lived under a false identity in Asnieres-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris.

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French serial killer expert admits his career is based on lies — and that he made up his wife

Turns out a famous French serial killer expert has been outed as a serial liar.

Stéphane Bourgoin, 67, has led a prestigious career and was considered one of the most knowledgeable experts on serial crime in France, the Independent says.

The true-crime book author claimed to have interviewed more than 70 killers since the 1970s, and alleged that his wife was raped and murdered by a serial killer in Los Angeles during that time.

His more than 75-book career was so revered that he was even involved in lecturing trainees at the French national judiciary police academy, CNN reports, and often toured the country to give talks on the subject.

In January, however, an anonymous collective called 4e Oeil (4th Eye in English) accused Bourgoin of lying in a number of videos shared to Youtube. According to CNN, the videos were removed but remain live on the group’s website.

Members of the collective told CNN that suspicions mounted when they realized certain dates didn’t match up from one book to another.

“His television interviews convinced us that he was truly making it all up,” they said.

Bourgoin has addressed the claims since he was outed, sharing his regret both on his since-deleted Instagram account and in the press.

“I’m ashamed to have lied, to have hidden things,” he told Le Parisien earlier this week. “It is true that when I was in the public eye, I sometimes happened to embellish, to extrapolate, to exaggerate my importance because I always had the deep feeling of not really ‘being loved.’”

He also admitted, per the Guardian, that he never trained with the FBI, never interviewed Charles Manson, was never a professional soccer player and didn’t interview nearly as many killers as he claimed.

And as for his wife, she wasn’t real either.

In fact, the woman who was really killed by serial murderer Gerald Stano was named Susan Bickrest, a woman Bourgain met at a Florida bar before her death, the Guardian says.

“It was bulls—t that I took on,” he told the French publication. “I didn’t want people to know the real identity of someone who was not my partner, but someone who I had met five or six times in Daytona Beach, and who I liked.”

Bourgain told Le Figaro that he’s in need of psychological counselling, adding that his lies were “ridiculous” and his actual work “was enough in itself.”

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French primary pupils trickle back to class after eight-week lockdown

PARIS/VELIZY (Reuters) – Across France, primary school pupils on Tuesday sat at least a metre apart in small classes and listened to teachers in masks on their first day back after two months of home-schooling during the coronavirus lockdown.

The lessons, though, did not cover maths or grammar, but hygiene amid a public health emergency: wash your hands, don’t touch your face and keep away from each other.

That was the new reality as some 1.5 million elementary and primary pupils – roughly one in every four – returned to class as France tentatively emerges from lockdown.

But with less than two months of the academic year left, some parents, teachers and their unions have questioned the wisdom of reopening schools when the virus continues to circulate, especially in the greater Paris region.

The related COVID-19 disease has already killed more than 26,000 people in France.

“The school that the kids are going to discover will have little to do with the school that they left behind,” said David, a teacher at a primary school in Paris’ western 16th district who gave his first name only.

“It’s more like a nursery to let the parents go back to work.”

The government wants to ease lockdown restrictions to resuscitate the economy and says the rate of infection has slowed sufficiently.

RESISTANCE

Unions and opposition parties have pointed to the risk that COVID-19 infections will pick up again, particularly in places where distancing is difficult, such as schools.

“Why have we started with the youngest children to end the lockdown when we know they’ll be the hardest ones to make apply protective measures?” said Francette Popineau, chief of the primary school union, on FranceInfo radio.

Secondary school children are not due back until May 25, but local authorities tasked with drawing up safety plans have concerns.

Recently, more than 300 mayors from the Paris region, including the capital’s mayor Anne Hidalgo, warned against rushing children back, as well as the financial cost for smaller towns and the threat of legal action if pupils fell ill.

One of them, Pascal Thevenot, mayor of Vélizy-Villacoublay, told Reuters it would be difficult to impose some of the sanitary measures outlined in a 54-page government document.

“I’m not sure the people who wrote this have had children,” he said. “I see this as an economic decision rather than an education decision.”

Many parents are still keeping their children at home. Others, though, need to return to work or consider whether the benefits to a child’s mental well-being from returning to school outweigh the risk of infection.

“I’m not too stressed, I explained to her the protective measures and I had to go back to work anyway,” Sandrine Delarue, a kindergarten assistant, said as she dropped her 10-year-old daughter Clara outside Vélizy’s Mozart school.

As for Clara, there was no hesitation in going back.

“It won’t be the same school, but at least it will make the virus pass,” Clara said. “I’m happy to be back, to see my teacher, my friends and to learn in class.”

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French to return to shops and hair salons as lockdown lifted

PARIS (Reuters) – Millions of French people are set to cautiously emerge from one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns on Monday, once more able to engage in everyday activities that have become unexpectedly precious, such as visiting shops and getting their hair cut.

France, whose official death toll is the world’s fifth highest, had enforced an eight-week lockdown, since March 17, to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, with residents only allowed out for essential shopping, work and a bit of exercise.

Shops and hair salons can now reopen, while people can venture out without a government-mandated form, except for trips of more than 100 km (62 miles), which are only allowed for professional reasons, funerals or caring for the sick.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government decided to lift the lockdown after the number of patients in intensive care – a key measure of hospitals’ ability to cope with the epidemic – fell to less than half the peak of over 7,000 seen in early April.

Another encouraging indicator has been a prolonged decline in the number of daily deaths from coronavirus infections, which fell to 70 on Sunday, bringing the total to 26,380.

Ahead of Monday’s end to lockdown, many people were keen to enjoy life’s simple pleasures again, including getting a new hairstyle.

“No hairdressers? I’d rather go without food,” Danielle Gerard, a regular at a hair salon in the central Marais district in Paris told Reuters TV over the weekend.

But it’s certainly not business as usual.

The government has urged caution, with some regions including the Paris area remaining “red zones”, and subject to additional restrictions. People across the nations are also still advised to work from home if they are able to do so. [nL8N2CP8RH]

A few sporadic clusters of infections have emerged in recent days, including one in Dordogne where at least nine people were diagnosed with COVID-19 following a funeral in late April, and another one in a central France secondary school where four people were infected.

Kindergarten and primary schools are allowed to open on a voluntary basis on Monday, a day before 1.5 million out of a total 6.7 million primary school pupils will be able to return to classrooms on Tuesday. [nL5N2CG5LW]

Although France has managed to circumscribe the epidemic to a broad northeastern quarter of the country – including Paris – and its hospitals have been able to cope, the ongoing crisis will nonetheless leave long-lasting marks, as it will across the world.

The French, long accustomed to being told their high taxes paid for the best healthcare in the world, have been dismayed by the rationing of critical drugs, face masks and equipment. They have watched with envy as neighbouring Germany appears to have coped better with the coronavirus pandemic.

After initially enjoying a rebound in popularity, Macron’s handling of the crisis has been criticised, with the government’s flip-flopping messages on when or even whether to wear face masks – which has been an issue in other countries too – fuelling mistrust.

Macron’s popularity rating fell to 34% in May, down 5 points from a month ago, according to a recent Elabe poll for Les Echos newspaper.

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France says total death toll from coronavirus rises by 80 to 26,310

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of people who have died from coronavirus infections in France rose by 80 to 26,310 on Saturday, the health ministry said, a much smaller daily increase than the previous day when it was 243.

The ministry said the number of people in intensive care units – a key measure of a health system’s ability to deal with the epidemic – fell by 56, or about 2%, to 2,812. That is less than half the peak of 7,148 seen on April 8.

The number of people in hospital with the coronavirus also fell, to 22,614 from 22,724, continuing an uninterrupted three-week fall, and down 30% from an April 14 peak of 32,292.

France will start lifting its almost two-month-old national lockdown from Monday.

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French life will not be normal after May 11, Macron says

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron warned on Friday that ending the national lockdown on May 11 would be only a first step for France to pull out of the coronavirus crisis, for which his handling faces mounting criticism.

Traditional Labour Day protests that usually draw thousands of demonstrators to the streets were cancelled this year due to the virus outbreak that has killed over 24,500 people across France.

“May 11 will not be the passage to normal life. There will be a recovery that will need to be organised,” Macron said in a speech at the presidential palace after a meeting with horticulturists. “There will be several phases and May 11 will be one of them.”

Unions organised online activities, asked people to bang pans and put out banners on balconies to mark labour day. Police disbanded a small protest in central Paris.

It was in stark contrast to this time last year when tens of thousands of labour union and “yellow vest” protesters were on the streets across France demonstrating against Macron’s policies. The protests were marred when dozens of masked and hooded anarchists clashed with riot police.

Macron, in a message on his Twitter account, lauded the traditional parades and French workers, urging unity and solidarity during these tough times.

“There is a strong desire to once again find the joyful, although sometimes bickering May 1, which makes our nation. My dear compatriots, we will find them, those happy May 1sts!”

But highlighting the rocky path ahead, union officials and far-right opposition leader Marine Le Pen were quick to underscore their concerns amid the crisis.

“Even if today we are confined, our demands are not,” Yves Veyrier, head of the Force Ouvriere union, told France Inter radio.

Le Pen pressed ahead with her party’s annual May 1 tradition of honouring mediaeval heroine Joan of Arc by laying a wreath at the golden statue of the 15th century warrior in central Paris, despite the lockdown.

“I’ve never said I had doubts about the confinement. I just said that complete confinement was the solution when we failed to prevent the epidemic,” Le Pen, wearing a mask, told reporters.

“A successful end to the lockdown is with tests for everybody, masks for everybody and I’m against schools opening before September.”

While trust in the government has fallen in recent polls, Le Pen’s repeated criticism of the government since the onset of the crisis appeared to have backfired. In an Elabe poll for Les Echos, her rating fell 3 points to 23% in April.

ENDING THE LOCKDOWN

From May 11, schools will gradually reopen and businesses will be free to resume operations after the country’s 67 million population has been in confinement since mid-March.

The government has said it is prepared to slow or delay the unwinding of the lockdown if the virus infection rate spikes markedly higher, with administrative departments divided into ‘red’ and ‘green’ zones.

Northeastern France, including the Paris region, has been especially hard hit, while swathes of the west and south of the country have barely been impacted, raising a dilemma for the government over how to ease the lockdown ahead of the busy summer tourism season.

While indicators in terms of intensive care cases and hospitalizations have been on a downward trend for more than two weeks, there are still warning signs.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Jerome Salomon, head of the public health authority, said the disease’s reproduction rate, known as the RO, had risen in France over recent days to between 0.6-0.7 on average from 0.5.

“This is because of a progressive return to activity,” he said.

The number is one of several indicators authorities are watching. Public health experts say an R number of 1 or above would make it impossible to loosen lockdowns.

Opposition lawmakers and some experts have questioned the practicalities of schools reopening, broad use of public transport and tough measures that will continue to impact areas less affected by the virus.

Question marks have also been raised about the government’s ability to reach its target of 700,000 COVID-19 tests by May 11, their implementation and the possible isolation of people who test positive for the illness.

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