French mask producers seek protective shield once pandemic over

Elizabeth Pineau
·3-min read
Revitalized by the health crisis, masks "Made in France" look for a future

By Elizabeth Pineau

VELIZY-VILLACOUBLAY, France (Reuters) - Emmanuel Nizard made a 2 million euro bet last year that President Emmanuel Macron's call for France to manufacture the face masks it needed would guarantee a secure market.

Now he wants to know how the government will shield him from cheap imports once the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

Nizard's startup "Le Masque Francais" employs 50 staff, churns out 1 million masks per week and counts Macron as a client. But the entrepreneur told Reuters the industry would be left fighting for its survival once demand for masks fell.

The challenges faced by Nizard's company show how hard it will be for Western governments to achieve their objectives of being self-sufficient in public health equipment supplies after being caught out at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they had to scramble to import from Asia.

"Companies that launched production will be confronted by Chinese masks that are unbeatable in terms of price," Nizard said at his plant in Velizy-Villacoublay near Paris.

France suffered acute shortages of protective gear when the virus first tore across France last spring. Macron urged the repatriation of supply chains for strategic goods.

France held just 117 million surgical masks in strategic reserves and no high-filtration FFP2 masks when the pandemic struck. Those reserves now hold some 1.7 billion masks - enough to last several months should another epidemic break out.

PRICE VS GUARANTEES

Higher labour charges mean it costs about 0.10 euro to produce a mask in France compared with a minimum of 0.06 euro in China, said Christian Curel, head of the industry's main union, who has been involved in talks with the government.

The number of mask manufacturers in France has risen five-fold to 20. But four in every five masks were still imported from China and buyers needed to be given a reason to purchase locally, Curel said. Some manufacturers like Nizard want cheap imports to be taxed more.

"If China was hit by the pandemic again, it's obvious we'd face another shortage," Curel said.

Curel said the government planned to alter the formulation of tenders so that buyers such as public hospitals would not just consider unit price but also environmental cost and implications for supply security.

An official familiar with the talks between government and mask manufacturers confirmed the strategy. Help could also come in the form of securing access to raw materials, he said.

The official said the target was to produce 40 million masks per week in France once the pandemic was over, compared with 100 million now.

Mask manufacturers acknowledge they will not all survive. They also said the crisis had underlined the shortage of skilled labour in France's manufacturing industry.

Gerard Heuliez, managing director of mask maker Kolmi-Hopen, said he had hired 170 additional staff last spring to ramp up production ten-fold to 3.5 million masks per day.

"We've lost the savoir faire in our value chain, but must build it back up," Heuliez said.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mike Collett-White)