Minister details operation to bring French people home
COVID-19 – Return of French people stranded abroad – Hearing by teleconference of M. Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Minister of State, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, before the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces Committee (excerpt)
Paris, 9 April 2020
As of yesterday evening, 155,000 French people travelling abroad had returned to France; moreover, this involved every continent at the same time.
Jean-Yves Le Drian and I established a close cooperation mechanism with the Transport Ministry and Air France, which I especially thank. Let’s not forget that the process began with Morocco and that its subsidiary Transavia organized a virtual shuttle service from Marrakesh, Casablanca and Rabat to France, with more than 140 additional flights to bring back the 20,000 French people on holiday in that country.
This exceptional repatriation drive worked in the following way: at 11.00 a.m. every morning, our consulates and embassies passed on to us the needs ascertained in their countries and we talked to the airlines to establish flight plans under three types of format. Sometimes regular flights were maintained; at other times special commercial flights had to be set up with, as far as possible, moderate prices. Air France stepped up in this regard, more than other European and international airlines. When that wasn’t possible, the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs chartered flights directly. That was the case with the Philippines and Australia, for example – faraway destinations where there were French backpackers without much money and, in the case of Australia, young people who had left on Working Holiday Visas (WHVs) and, having lost their jobs, found themselves with no money. The beneficiaries of these flights signed a commitment to reimburse the State at reasonable prices: €300 for the Philippines and €800 for Australia. Thirty-four flights fell under this category, some of them under the European [Union] Civil Protection Mechanism, which led to us also boarding nationals from other member States. French people were able to benefit reciprocally from German and Spanish flights. The British also remembered the usefulness of the Mechanism.
Today there are still a few thousand French people stranded, or who “discover” that they’re stranded and are telling us: “I continued my holiday but now I want to come back”. Of course this behaviour raises questions, but we’re here to facilitate their return. Political interventions are sometimes necessary to secure the reopening of borders or authorization to land at military airports when civilian terminals are closed. For example, some time ago the New Zealand Government didn’t want foreign tourists to be repatriated; so an intervention was necessary to resolve this difficulty.
Finally, there are still French people stranded in transit because they’ve tested positive for COVID-19, as is the case in Egypt and Cambodia. Our compatriots have been put in quarantine in those countries and will return to French soil once they have completed it.
We have learned lessons from this experience, which has illustrated the value of our universal diplomatic network. We should remember this when the time comes for making choices. Staff at the various [diplomatic] posts have been genuine everyday heroes. We’ve also established very smooth coordination between ministries and put in place new digital tools or improved those already existing. Ariane, for example, has seen the number of people registering on it explode, with a 25% increase. We publicized it so tourists could receive the necessary information and created a website, www.sosuntoit.fr, to make it easier for the French people who are the most out of pocket to find accommodation. (...)./.