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After weeks of shortages, France now has surplus of 40 million face masks

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By Vincent Coste  & Alice Tidey
French President Emmanuel Macron wears a  a protective face mask, as he visits a Valeo manufacturer plant, in Etaples, Tuesday May 26, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron wears a a protective face mask, as he visits a Valeo manufacturer plant, in Etaples, Tuesday May 26, 2020.   -   Copyright  Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP

French consumers are being urged to buy domestically-produced reusable face masks rather than import single-use ones, often from China.

That's because France now has a surplus of about 40 million washable masks, textile companies are struggling financially, and face coverings are better for the environment, the industry is arguing.

Amid a shortage of personal protection equipment at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in France, some 400 textile companies switched their production to make face masks. That has created a significant surplus.

"As the epidemic subsides, they [the textile comapnies] are left with large stocks of masks and unused fabric," said the Union of Textile Industries (UIT). "In addition, their usual activities, which are highly dependent on sectors deeply impacted by this crisis (aeronautics, automobile, hotels, and restaurants, clothing, events) are struggling to restart."

It called on the government to stockpile these face masks in preparation for a possible future epidemic and "in recognition of industrialists who reconverted their production at its request".

It argued that the face masks are "durable and non-perishable", and that their cost of use is "significantly lower than that of disposable masks".

Some companies also stressed the masks have a lower carbon footprint given that they're produced in the country.

In response, the Secretary of State to the Minister of the Economy, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, called earlier this week for businesses to buy "washable, reusable masks" for their employees instead of ordering single-use surgical masks often imported from China.

A ministerial mission has also been entrusted to two entrepreneurs, including the UIT's president, to adjust supply to demand over the coming months.

With more than 29,300 deaths recorded as of June 11, France is one of the world's most severely impacted country by the pandemic. Only the US, Brazil, the UK, and Italy have heavier death tolls.

The country started to lift lockdown restrictions on May 11 and "better than expected" data prompted the government to unlock the second phase of easing on June 2.

Most shops, bars and restaurants, monuments and touristic sites have since reopened but public gatherings of more than 10 people remain banned.

The use of face masks is only mandatory on public transport and by teachers and pupils in secondary education. French people are however strongly encouraged to wear one in any situation where social distancing measures cannot be fully respected.

A study by Germany's Institute of Labour Economics released earlier this week found that the number of infections in the first German city that made face masks compulsory dropped by a quarter over the first 20 days and by more than half among people aged 60 and over.

"Estimating the effects for other regions and assessing the credibility of the various estimates, the authors conclude that face masks reduce the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40%," it added.