France has millions of unsold face masks after virus crisis

PARIS (AP) — The French praised the altruism of their prized textile and luxury goods companies when production facilities got diverted from churning out the latest fashions to making cloth masks designed to protect the general public from the coronavirus.

Now, the companies that helped France avoid a feared shortage of virus-filtering face wear for everyday use say they need help unloading a surplus of 20 million masks. They asked the French government for assistance promoting and finding buyers for the unsold output of the industry’s national effort.

Hundreds of textile and clothing manufacturers answered the government’s call for millions of masks superior to homemade versions. President Emmanuel Macron last month sported a military-tested model embroidered with the tri-color national flag to advertise the “Made in France” masks.

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

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

French President Emmanuel Macron wears a protective face mask as he speaks with schoolchildren at the Pierre Ronsard elementary school, outside Paris. PHOTO: AP

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

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

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

A group of industry representatives got time with two junior government ministers this week to discuss the surplus masks, as well as broader concerns about the health of fashion, textiles and luxury goods makers amid the economic fallout of the pandemic and in the long term.

After the meeting, the ministers offered praise and pledged the government’s help to spread the word to distributors, local governments and other potential customers about the environmental and employment benefits of the French masks and finding buyers at home and abroad for the surplus stock.

State Secretary to France’s Economy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told French broadcaster RTL that the government’s objective “is to convince large buyers to switch from single-use masks to reusable washable textile masks.” Gibault and French Textile Industry Union President Yves Dubief agreed to lead the mission.