The output of the French construction industry has fallen by around 90% in the first month of the Covid-19 outbreak there, according to research by Insee, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies.
The government had wanted to exempt construction from the nationwide lock-down, brought in on 17 March.
But employment minister Muriel Pénicaud (pictured) accused the French Building Confederation (FFB) of "scandalous defeatism" after it advised its member companies to close their sites.
The government also accused construction workers of wanting to down tools to take advantage of welfare payments.
The two sides had agreed to continue operations to avoid damage to the whole economic supply chain, but Insee’s figures suggest this accord is not being respected on the ground.
One leader of a construction federation complained of a chaotic situation in the industry, and denounced the lack of masks and hand gel, as well as the need for workers to travel together in vans.
Jacques Chanut, president of the FFB, attacked Pénicaud’s "disgusting insinuations" in The Figero newspaper, and added that many firms had already donated all their protective masks to hospitals.
He said: "The cessation of our activity is a heartbreaking, … but, in the current uncertainty, we ask the public authorities for the right to suspend work on our sites for a fixed period in order to work with doctors and unions to determine a safe framework that would allow a resumption of activity where possible. This is not a request specific to France: construction companies have made the same request in Italy, Spain and Belgium."
Published yesterday, the Insee survey covers the period up to Wednesday, 25 March.
It found that economic activity in the country had fallen to 65% of its usual level following the nationwide lock-down.
There are wide disparities among sectors, however, with reduction in activity estimated at 60% for industry, excluding food processing, 56% for market services, excluding real estate and 90% for construction.
The results indicate a sharp contraction in GDP, which Insee said might be around three percentage points for every month of lockdown – much higher than previous estimates, which put the fall at one percentage point for 2020.
Jean-Luc Tavernier, the director general of Insee, commented on the findings, saying, "However imprecise and uncertain these figures are, they seem to me to give an idea of the scale of the problem, which seems preferable to saying nothing at all about it."
Insee added that its estimate seemed consistent with the first information available on the situation of employees, about a third of whom were at their usual place of business, a third teleworking and a third in partial unemployment. It is also in line with the observed decrease in electricity consumption, currently around 20% compared to an ordinary situation.
The French construction sector employs some 1.5 million people in France and accounts for around 6% of its GDP.
Image: Muriel Pénicaud accused employers of "defeatism" (CC BY-SA 2.0)