Skeptical about the French government’s response to the epidemic, the Chinese Embassy, business leaders and expatriate associations handed out “COVID kits”, masks and other protective gear to their compatriots.
But this has put some in trouble with the law.
Among the masks distributed were the highly sought-after type of FFP2, which, in times of critical shortage, was reserved for medical personnel on the front line of the battle for coronaviruses in France.
At the start of the epidemic, France had requisitioned all stocks of face masks and production for distribution to doctors, nurses and caregivers.
However, on April 5, Paris police arrested two representatives of Chinese associations for possession of some 15,000 masks.
Two days later, three students were arrested while distributing “COVID kits” sponsored by the Chinese Embassy in the Paris suburbs, an operation that led people to collect in violation of strict French regulations on social distancing to stem the spread of the virus.
FFP2 masks were included in some kits, as well as protective gloves, disinfectant wipes and traditional Chinese medicine.
The Chinese Embassy in Paris insisted in a statement that there was nothing illegal. He did “his best … to defend the rights and legitimate interests of Chinese compatriots in France”.
– “Chinese Health Diplomacy” –
The health crisis has strained the links between Paris and Beijing.
France summoned the Chinese ambassador this week to protest a series of controversial comments from the Beijing embassy in Paris on France’s management of the coronavirus.
And French President Emmanuel Macron told the Financial Times that things “have happened that we ignore” in the response to the virus from China, where the pandemic was born.
The “COVID kit” initiative came in response to a letter of March 31, in the form of an urgent appeal signed by some 20 organizations representing Chinese people based in France, whom they considered “in danger”.
Faced with “the inability (of the French authorities) to take the appropriate protective measures,” said the authors of the letter, written in Mandarin, they called for “certain protective products and medical equipment”.
Two days after it was sent, the Chinese Embassy in Paris launched a “COVID kits” distribution program, using students who organize deliveries using the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat.
125,000 Chinese nationals live in France with a residence permit, a small proportion of all foreigners residing in the country.
If you include expatriates who have obtained French nationality, the number could reach 700,000, according to local groups.
Many want to return home to China, which they say is controlling the epidemic five months after the coronavirus epidemic began in December.
But “Beijing wants to avoid returns for fear of importing cases,” said Simeng Wang, a researcher at the French Institute at the CNRS.
“The government has therefore decided to help the Chinese abroad to calm the situation. It can be called Chinese health diplomacy, ”she said.
– “Unofficial channels” –
In addition to official aid, there has been massive private mobilization, including the provision of millions of masks via “unofficial channels,” said Tamara Lui, president of the Chinese Association of France.
She said the community felt “marginalized”, in part because it insisted on wearing face masks even though the French government denied their effectiveness as a means of virus control for the general public.
“Teleconsultations with doctors based in China have exploded,” she added.
The father of Chinese national Jimmy Gov was among those arrested on April 5.
“We wanted to help nationals who do not speak well (French). The community is shocked. We were there to help and we were slapped on the wrist, “said Gov, whose father is scheduled to appear in court in September.
The community points out that it is helping out beyond its own tight-knit group.
In the 13th arrondissement of Paris, where many Chinese expatriates live, associations and business leaders “use their networks to distribute masks to health personnel,” said Laetitia Chhiv, president of the Association of Chinese Youth in France.
Last Thursday, 250,000 masks were delivered to the district municipal council for redistribution.
“The whole community is mobilized on this issue,” said Adeline Dai, who handles logistics for several Chinese associations.