France will begin to ease its strict coronavirus restrictions this weekend, allowing non-essential shops to reopen, President Emmanuel Macron has said.
People will also be able to share “moments with the family” over the Christmas period, Mr Macron announced.
But he said bars and restaurants would have to remain closed until 20 January.
France has reported more than 2.2 million cases and more than 50,000 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths since the start of the pandemic.
In a televised address on Tuesday evening, Mr Macron said the country had passed the peak of the second wave of virus infections.
He said that the bulk of lockdown restrictions would be eased from 15 December for the festive period, with cinemas reopening and general travel restrictions lifted, as long as new infections were at 5,000 a day or less.
On Monday, France reported 4,452 daily Covid-19 infections – its lowest tally since 28 September.
The latest seven-day rolling average for new infections in France is reported to be 21,918. That figure peaked at 54,440 on 7 November.
Mr Macron said the recent news of successful vaccine trials offered “a glimmer of hope” and that France would aim to begin vaccinations against Covid-19 “at the end of December or at the beginning of January”, starting with the elderly and most vulnerable.
The French president said the situation would be reviewed on 20 January, and if infections remained low, bars and restaurants would then be permitted to reopen. Universities would also be able to accept students again.
However, if the situation had worsened, he said he would look at options to avoid triggering a third wave.
“We must do everything to avoid a third wave, do everything to avoid a third lockdown,” Mr Macron said.
He later tweeted to say that all businesses forced to remain closed during the restrictions, such as restaurants, bars and sports halls, would have the choice of receiving up to €10,000 (£8,900) from a “solidarity fund” or the payment of 20% of their turnover.
He said that France’s ski resorts may have to remain closed until next year because the current risks associated with the virus made it difficult for such sports to resume.
However, he said he would discuss the issue with other European leaders and provide an update in the coming days.
Ski resorts were responsible for numerous outbreaks of Covid-19 cases across Europe in the early days of the pandemic.
Mr Macron said the lockdown would be replaced by a nationwide curfew between 21:00 and 07:00, except on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
France has been under a second national lockdown since the beginning of November. People have only been permitted to leave home to go to work, buy essential goods, seek medical help or exercise for one hour a day. Anyone going outside must carry a written statement justifying their journey.
While all non-essential shops, restaurants and bars have been shut, schools and crèches have remained open. Social gatherings have been banned.
Measures to deal with coronavirus outbreaks remain in place across Europe, but a reduction in daily reported cases in some areas – coupled with the reported success of a number of vaccines – has led countries to revisit their restrictions. Some of the latest developments include:
- Along with France, politicians from other nations – including Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte – have said that Europe’s ski resorts should close over the winter and that it is too risky to spend the Christmas holiday on the snow
- The developers of Russia‘s main coronavirus vaccine – Sputnik V – have said that it is proving to be up to 95% effective. They have also said that it will be cheaper – and easier to store and transport – than its competitors in the US. Some critics have suggested the vaccine is being rushed through, but Moscow rejects this
- Austria and Spain both announced vaccination plans. Nursing home residents and workers in Spain will be first in line to be vaccinated, while in Austria elderly, at-risk groups and health professionals will be prioritised. Both countries hope to start in January
- Leaders in Germany‘s 16 federal states have agreed to allow gatherings of up to 10 people over Christmas and the New Year, allowing some families and friends to get together, but dashing hopes for larger gatherings