Government is doing all it can to repatriate French travellers - Minister

COVID-19 – Return of French people stranded abroad – Interview given by M. Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Minister of State attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to France 3 (excerpt)

Paris, 30 March 2020


Q. – 20,000 French people are still stranded abroad, this lunchtime. What can France do to repatriate them? There still many in Morocco, for example.

THE MINISTER – To be clear, we’re now talking about more like 12,000 because dozens of planes are bringing our compatriots back home every day. I was listening to the report from Peru, and there’s a great deal of logistical work to be done there because sometimes many French people are scattered in more remote areas, so to speak, in Cuzco, in Arequipa. And so we’re in the process of gathering them together before bringing them back to France, from Lima. We’re going to continue the flights, as long as there are French people on trips who are still stranded abroad.

And regarding Morocco there were 140 flights in one week, which allowed us to get 20,000 French people back. And a ship left yesterday to bring the latest, who included motor-homers stuck in Ceuta, back to Sète.

Q. – Does that mean everyone should be back home this week?

THE MINISTER – We’re doing as much as we can to get them back as soon as possible – the French tourists and business travellers – and, indeed, I hope this will be finished this week. The Foreign Ministry teams are working flat out, 24/7, morning, noon and night either here or all over the world. (...)./.

COVID-19 – European response/return of French people stranded abroad/tourism – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Minister of State attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to Sud Radio

Paris, 24 March 2020

COVID-19/EU response

Q. – You’re speaking to us remotely because we’re all in confinement; you’re on the telephone, we’ve got our external radio equipment. You’re in charge of tourism – we’re going to talk about that in a moment – but also Europe. There isn’t really any coordinated response from Europe in all this. Why?

THE MINISTER – On the contrary, I think we’ve reached a moment when the Europeans are clearly aware that if they aren’t united, they won’t manage to defeat this virus. And so, on the contrary, I’m seeing a burst of momentum from Europe.

Q. – Really?

THE MINISTER – Yes, let me explain. The President has kept to the right course, he called for a genuine European response. It was on his initiative that a European Council videoconference was held just over a week ago – it was the first time, in order to take coordinated health measures and economic measures, because we’ve got to protect our jobs and support businesses in these difficult times.

And the President of the European Commission, for example, asked States to ensure that all freight lorries helping fight this war against the virus aren’t held for too long at borders. There’s the job of coordination between health ministers and foreign ministers. At every level, we’re talking to our counterparts because that’s how problems are resolved.

Q. – Yes, but there’s nonetheless the impression that people are finding it hard to speak with one voice. It’s far more a case of sovereign countries taking decisions, whether as regards closing borders, the duration of confinement or treatment. We’ve got to recognize that this isn’t a single European response and maybe, moreover, it’s the best solution.

THE MINISTER – You know, Europe is both, I’d say, united – because we’re these people with many things in common – and diverse, and we’ve also got to adapt to specific local factors and the dynamics of the epidemic, which vary from one country to another, and even within the same country – we’re seeing this in France, from one region to another.

French people stranded abroad

Q. – The confinement is global, with more than a billion people involved. There are the French people stranded abroad. Out of the 130,000 these past few days, I think 60,000 or so have returned home. What are you doing for the 90,000 others still stranded?

THE MINISTER – The 70,000 others, if I may – 130,000 less 60,000. We’re mobilized, we’re coordinating very closely, the Quai d’Orsay, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Transport Ministry, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari and the airline company Air France.

So dozens of flights are being planned every day to bring our compatriots home; the day before yesterday they came back from the Canaries and Peru, and just today a plane has returned from the Philippines, where we had 412 compatriots stranded on Cebu Island. So it’s really a daily job with all the consulates and embassies, and I can tell you that it’s a huge logistical task to ensure that – how can I put it – airlines plan these flights, in countries where sometimes landing is prohibited. And here, it’s my and Jean-Yves Le Drian’s job to negotiate with our counterparts where these planes can land to collect our compatriots, and then also ensure that the airlines charge reasonable prices, because many people have had to buy tickets for flights which have been cancelled. They sometimes find themselves with little money, and so this call is mostly heeded.

I was able to check this, for example, regarding the Dominican Republic, because thanks to social media we can see people’s concerns, we can see the problems that are building up, and this enables us to approach the airlines to ensure they make an effort in this regard.

Q. – You’ve approached them, and are they slightly easing up on those prices, which they’d been tending to drastically increase for the return flights?

THE MINISTER – What I’m noticing in every case is that the national airlines work very well with us, and once again, in the case of the Dominican Republic, I was told: look out, prices have doubled, tripled; I checked and we now have prices that are reasonable, moderate for such transatlantic journeys. So I can tell you that, in any case, we’re doing everything to ensure that, firstly, flights are planned, and secondly, the fares are moderate.

Q. – And can you crack down if the fares are still much too high? Can you refer the matter to a commission or not?

THE MINISTER – In fact, what we’re asking in a very practical way is for companies to unplug their artificial intelligence systems, which ensure that when supply and demand clash and demand is much greater than supply, prices soar. So we’re asking them to switch off those mechanisms and apply prices created by humans, as it were, ensuring once again that in these exceptional circumstances, airlines aren’t there to make a profit but quite simply to fly at cost price.

Q. – Well, I’ve done a recount and it’s true, you’re right: it was 70,000 and not 90,000. You’re very hopeful that those people, those French people stranded abroad, will come back roughly when? By the end of the week?

THE MINISTER – I think it’ll be another six or seven days, because as time goes by we must also deal increasingly with communities of French tourists who are in sometimes very remote countries with logistical problems, and so we must give ourselves another six or seven days. I know sometimes this may seem a long time. I urge our compatriots to be patient and understanding. We’re doing everything, but you see, there are more or less 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 French people coming back every day. We’re continuing, we will continue, as long as they’re abroad.

Q. – Yes, why are some people still going abroad? Should we be banning those journeys?

THE MINISTER – We’re being very clear: we must ban – at any rate people are strongly advised not to go abroad. It’s quite simple: there are about 170 countries in the world that have taken measures against French people, i.e. either entry bans or quarantine, because we’re regarded as one of the European hotspots. So people are absolutely advised to stay home and not leave, because subsequently we find ourselves in very complicated situations, and I appeal to everyone to be responsible.

Q. – Several terminals at Orly and Roissy have closed. How many are you going to keep open?

THE MINISTER – ADP [Paris airports operator] will be able to tell you. We need to have airports that are operating to continue receiving those flights, to ensure everyone can return home. It’s as simple as that.

Q. – So in the coming days there will be new decisions on those terminals. One final word about the airports: why are there still no temperature checks on people arriving at our airports in France?

THE MINISTER – What our compatriots returning from abroad are being asked is the same thing as French people on French soil are being asked, namely to confine themselves as soon as they arrive and, if they show symptoms, to follow the health protocols. That’s what is effective. As you know, taking people’s temperature can fail to detect cases where people are incubating the virus and haven’t visibly developed it yet. So I think what’s important is to follow the health protocols when you return home; that’s what will save [lives].


Q. – You’re also the Minister of State responsible for tourism, the main sector bearing the brunt, or basically one of the major sectors affected by this global crisis. You’re hosting a meeting with the professionals again today. What’s your calculation of the current losses?

THE MINISTER – France is the leading country when it comes to welcoming tourists; we really are at the top of the podium. It generates around €170 billion a year in tourism revenue for all our regions, with international tourists and French people travelling on holiday. This means that if the situation were to last three months, a quarter, well, around €40 billion would evaporate for our regions, for the tourism industries, which I remind you provide a living for two million people throughout the country. That’s why Jean-Yves Le Drian, Bruno Le Maire and I are working extremely hard with professionals in the sector. I convene a meeting of the tourism sector committee every week. It’s enabled us to prepare emergency decisions; that’s the way it is. As the Prime Minister confirmed in his speech yesterday evening, we’re going to allow travel agencies to offer people who have booked trips to postpone them until after the health crisis is over and thus enjoy a credit enabling them to travel later. And we’ve also taken measures for every economic sector in France, with €45 billion in aid and either the deferment or the writing-off of tax and social security debts, as well as the very broad introduction of short-time working, and above all 100% compensation. And finally, €300 billion to guarantee access to corporate credit, whether businesses are small or large.

Q. – That’s overall, it’s an overall figure of €300 billion.

THE MINISTER – Yes, it’s overall, but it also reflects the needs of tourism businesses, which are businesses like others, furthermore.

Q. – Yes. Now, on holiday bookings, what you’ve just said is still interesting. So regarding those bookings, you’re confirming: no reimbursements but a deferment of valid tickets or bookings over time, for a year and a half. And so will that become the rule?

THE MINISTER – It’s about establishing a credit. I’ve booked a journey, I have a credit that allows me to reschedule until after the health crisis the journey I’d planned with the agency, and that credit will be valid for 18 months. After 18 months, if I haven’t used that credit, then reimbursement will be possible, but given that I’d planned the journey, well, the possibility of that journey is maintained once the health crisis is over.

Q. – What are you envisaging for this summer? Should French people be planning their summer holidays after all?

THE MINISTER – It’s very difficult to answer that question because we don’t know what the situation will be at that point. Look, for the local elections, which are scheduled for 21 June, we’ll do a health update on 23 May. And so it’s true that in the spring people normally book for the summer, but it’s currently very difficult to make predictions. I think the prudent thing is quite simply to adapt when the time comes and take decisions a little later. I think today is the time to fight.

Q. – So is your advice to French people to wait a little bit, not necessarily book, especially abroad, wait a little, and do you also think a lot of people will withdraw to their country and stay in France?

THE MINISTER – Personally I do think tourism is also going to change and that, from now on, French people who go on holiday will really want to have guarantees about their ability to access treatment and check that the places they’re going are well protected. And I think there will be a resurgence of national tourism, of the discovery of all that heritage and local produce that makes the planet rich and makes us the leading country in welcoming foreign tourists. Maybe we’ll rediscover our country even more ourselves.

Q. – I’m going to be a little bit forthright. Ultimately, don’t you regret not closing the borders earlier?

THE MINISTER – As you know, there isn’t necessarily much point in closing the border, national borders within the European Union, insofar as, once again, the virus doesn’t stop at the border. Subsequently it was important to close our European borders in a coordinated fashion.

Q. – No, but that prevented the flow of people who were possibly already infected.

THE MINISTER – Yes, but you can see, within France itself, at that point you can see we ourselves have outbreaks, and those outbreaks are spread across France. So I think what was important was to take the maximum number of coordinated measures: the Europeans decided to close their external borders – that’s been done, it’s in force – and now we’re all combating the virus. (…)./.

Published on 31/03/2020

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