France has millions of unsold masks after the virus crisis

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PARIS – The Frenchman praised the altruism of their textile and luxury companies when production facilities were diverted from churning out the latest fashions to making fabric masks designed to protect the general public from coronavirus.

Today, companies that helped France avoid a feared shortage of virus-filtered facial wear for daily use say they need help unloading a surplus of 20 million masks. They asked the French government for help in promoting and finding buyers for the unsold production of the industry’s national effort.

Hundreds of textile and apparel manufacturers have responded to the government’s call for millions of masks superior to home versions. President Emmanuel Macron last month sported a military-tested model embroidered with the national tricolor flag to announce the “Made in France” masks.

In this May 5 photo, French President Emmanuel Macron wears a protective mask as he talks to schoolchildren at Pierre Ronsard Primary School, near Paris. (Ian Langsdon, Pool via AP, File)

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However, within a few weeks, demand dried up for nationally produced masks that sold for a few euros in supermarkets and pharmacies or were available in bulk for free distribution by businesses and local governments. Manufacturers and the government have recognized that many suppliers and consumers have still opted for cheaper disposable masks from Asia.

“They were more readily available,” Guillaume Gibault, founder of the fashionable underwear brand Le Slip Français (The French Brief), told French public radio service RFI.

Mr. Gibault sees this slump as a marketing and distribution problem. The specially designed washable masks produced by his company and others saw “very strong and immediate demand” before excess accessories piled up in warehouses and factories.

“Not everyone necessarily knew what was available around them, and the public didn’t necessarily know where or what to buy,” he said.

In this photo from May 11, 2020, a woman wears a mask on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

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Some textile companies complained that the French government was slow to validate their masks as effective in filtering small particles, which slowed down their ability to get to market before people were allowed out of their homes and needed masks in shops or on public transport.

A group of industry representatives had time with two junior government ministers this week to discuss excess masks, as well as broader concerns about the health of fashion, textile and luxury goods manufacturers amid the economic benefits of the pandemic and the long term.

After the meeting, ministers praised and promised government assistance in passing the word to distributors, local governments and other potential customers about the environmental and employment benefits of French masks and finding buyers at home and abroad for excess stock.

An employee sews face masks at Chanteclair Hosiery, a French knitwear manufacturer, in Saint Pouange, east of Paris. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

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Agnès Pannier-Runacher, secretary of state to the French economy minister, told French channel RTL that the government’s goal “is to convince large buyers to switch from single-use masks to reusable washable textile masks.” Mr. Gibault and French textile industry union president Yves Dubief agreed to lead the mission.

“In a few weeks, the French textile industry has managed to mobilize and reorient its productive apparatus in our territory in order to provide the French durable textile masks with guaranteed filtration in sufficient quantities,” said Mr. Pannier-Runacher. “This impressive effort is to be commended. It must now be long-term and receive support.

The French textile industry union was the first to sound the alarm at the beginning of June about this surplus problem.

An employee walks in cut fabric to produce face masks at Chanteclair Hosiery, a French knitwear manufacturer, in Saint Pouange, east of Paris. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

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“The demand was such that no one had foreseen such a sudden shutdown. But in the textile industry, once launched, production doesn’t stop with a snap of the fingers,” Dubief told French magazine Challenges.

Some French companies were dissatisfied because it was the French government that urged many of them to start making masks and increase their capacity so that the country would produce 5 million masks a day that could be sold or donated to the general public, local governments and businesses by mid-May.

The knitting maker behind the Macron mask flashed during a school visit in early May, Chanteclair, has much more where the president comes from. Owner Thomas Delise also has many unanswered questions.

Thomas Delise makes a gesture in Chanteclair Hosiery, a French knitwear manufacturer in Saint Pouange, east of Paris. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

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The French government said this week that part of the joint industry-government mission will be “to help the sector adjust its production capacity to the collective needs of masks in the coming months.” For his part, Delise believes that blocking large imports with trade barriers could help what afflicts his company.

“We don’t know how the pandemic will evolve. We do not know what instructions the government will give, we do not know what kind of equipment the professionals will want. So today, yes, we have an excess stock of 600,000 masks and that obviously has an impact on my business.

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