PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron announced strong restrictions on freedom of movement in a bid to counter the new coronavirus Monday, as the European Union closed its external borders to foreign travelers.
In a televised public address, Macron said that from midday Tuesday, and for at least 15 days, people in France would only be allowed to leave their homes for necessary activities such as shopping for food or going to work. He said gatherings of families and friends were banned, though people could take exercise, provided they kept their distance from each other.
He said he was acting because people had not respected previous urgings for social distancing.
“We saw people gather in parks, crowded markets, restaurants and bars who did not follow the instructions. … Not only are you not protecting yourself but you are not protecting others,” he told the French people.
“We are at war,” Macron said repeatedly in his address.
Macron said French people nationwide should stay at home and only go out for the “bare essentials.” He said that anyone infringing the restrictions would be punished, without specifying what exactly that could mean.
He also announced the postponement of the second round of France’s local elections, and the suspension of the government’s controversial retirement reforms, saying it was necessary to concentrate on the fight against the virus.
As of earlier Monday, France had reported 5,397 virus cases, more than the United States.
Along with the rest of the European Union, France is closing its borders to most foreign travelers, while also proposing fast-track traffic lanes to make sure vital medical equipment reaches EU citizens.
The EU plan was announced almost a week after a nationwide lockdown took effect in Italy, the country with the most reported virus cases in the world except for China. Spain followed suit over the weekend, while other EU nations have adopted ad hoc national measures, including partial border closures.
EU officials fear that countries acting alone and without coordination might make things more difficult for neighbors whose health-care systems are already creaking. The virus has infected more than 50,000 people across Europe and caused 2,000 deaths.
“The less travel, the more we can contain the virus,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, as she unveiled the plan that Brussels will put to to the bloc’s 27 leaders at a summit to be held via video-conference on Tuesday.
She said travel restrictions into Europe should be put in place for an initial period of 30 days. Exemptions could be given to long-term residents in the EU, border area workers, family members of European nationals and diplomats.
British citizens would not be included in the ban, even though the country officially withdrew from the EU on Jan. 31
“Essential staff such as doctors, nurses, care workers, researchers and experts that help address the coronavirus should continue to be allowed in the EU,” von der Leyen said.
Transport workers also could receive exemptions to ensure supplies of “essential items such as medicine, but also food and components that our factories need,” she said.
On the borders inside the 26-country area of Europe that is visa- and passport-free for citizens and authorized residents, fast lanes would be set up for transporting medical supplies and essential goods. EU officials said the goal is to help cut down on traffic jams in border areas and to keep EU economies working as the disease chips away at world markets.
The overall idea is “to reduce unnecessary movement, but at the same time to ensure the movement of merchandise, of goods, so that we can guarantee as much as possible the integrity of the single market, guarantee the deliveries that are needed.” EU Council President Charles Michel said.
In recent days, the EU has been urging its members to put common health screening procedures in place at internal borders but not to block the transport of important medical equipment.
Separately Monday, the Russian government announced that it has decided to bar entry to all foreigners starting Wednesday and until May 1.
The move will not apply to diplomats, foreigners permanently staying in Russia, plane and ship crews and truck drivers.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Cook and Petrequin reported from Brussels. Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.