French President Emmanuel Macron announced Wednesday that French schools would close next week and a limited lockdown in place in Paris and other regions would be extended to the whole country to battle soaring Covid-19 cases.
Macron said in an address to the nation that the current efforts to limit the virus "were too limited at a time when the epidemic is accelerating". The spread of the so-called British variant meant "we risk losing control".
He said that schools would close from Monday for the next three weeks, but this would include two weeks of spring holiday.
From Saturday night and for the next four weeks, travel restrictions will be imposed across the whole country and non-essential shops will close in line with measures already implemented in Covid-19 hotspots such as Paris, he said.
But striking a more optimistic tone for the medium term, he said some cultural venues and cafe terraces would reopen in mid-May "under strict rules" and a calendar drawn up for a progressive reopening of other facilities.
"Thanks to the vaccine, the way out of the crisis is emerging," he said.
He also announced that the vaccine drive would be open to all those over 60 from April 16 and those over 50 from May 15.
'We made mistakes'
Acknowledging criticism from opponents, Macron struck a more humble tone than last week when he said that he had no reason to apologise for his handling of the pandemic.
"At every stage of this epidemic, we could say to ourselves that we could have done better, that we made mistakes. That's all true," he said.
"But I know one thing: we have stood firm, we've learned and at every stage we've improved."
At the end of January, the 43-year-old president bucked the European trend and went against the recommendation of his scientific advisers by deciding that France would not enter a third lockdown.
For a month, the bet looked to have paid off as new cases flatlined at around 20,000 a day in February, with France in a state of semi-openness -- under a night-time curfew, but with shops and schools open.
But with daily cases having doubled to around 40,000 and hospitals in infection hotspots like Paris overflowing, the tide looks to have turned as medics pleaded for tighter restrictions.
The new measures stop short of a full national lockdown observed in France during the first wave of the pandemic in March and April 2020, when people were only allowed out for essential business or for exercise once a day.
A survey Wednesday by the Elabe polling group for BFM news channel showed that 70 percent of French people supported a strict lockdown in the most affected areas and 81 percent expected it to be announced.
Macron again defended not locking down in January.
"Many of our neighbours decided to lock down, like our German neighbours who have been locked down for four months. Our Italian friends are on their fourth lockdown," he said.
"With our collective choices we gained precious weeks of liberty, weeks of learning for our children, we allowed hundreds of thousands of workers to keep their head above water, without losing control of the epidemic," he argued.