Winter sport resorts will not be able to reopen before the end of the year, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised address to the nation on Tuesday.
"The government has held talks with the industry, but it seems impossible to consider reopening for the year-end festivities," Mr Macron said, adding that it would be preferable to reopen in January under good conditions and in coordination with other European countries.
After a second coronavirus lockdown that started Oct. 30, infection rates have dropped sharply in the past week and Mr Macron announced the easing of several restrictions, including the reopening of shops selling non-essential goods from Saturday.
Meanwhile, Italy’s ski resorts are in revolt after being told it is highly unlikely they will be allowed to open for the Christmas holidays.
The government is desperate to avoid the mistakes of the summer, when the end of Italy’s strict lockdown and the reopening of beach resorts and nightclubs contributed to the country’s second wave of Covid-19 infections.
Italy on Monday surpassed the grim milestone of 50,000 dead from the pandemic.
The health ministry reported another 853 coronavirus-related deaths on Tuesday - the highest daily toll since the end of March, when the country was in the grip of the first wave of the pandemic.
The total was high even by the grim standards of the last few days, in which each day has seen around 600 new deaths. Italy's death toll is the second highest in Europe after that of the UK.
Giuseppe Conte, the prime minister, wants not only Italian ski resorts closed, but also those of neighbouring countries such as Austria, Slovenia and France.
He said that unless those countries followed Italy’s example there would be unfair competition.
Italian skiers would be tempted to cross the border for their winter holidays, with the risk that they bring the virus back with them, fuelling a third wave of cases.
“We’re working with Merkel and Macron for a common European protocol,” Mr Conte said in an Italian television interview.
“If we close our mountain resorts and adjoining countries do not, Italian tourists will go to Austria and France and then bring the virus home.”
Allowing ski holidays “indiscriminately” would lead to a third wave of cases, he said.
Francesco Boccia, regional affairs minister, said: “With the virus numbers we are seeing, you can’t talk about normal Christmas holidays. The conditions do not permit a winter ski season.”
Although ministers seem to be strongly against allowing skiing this winter, a clearer picture will only be known on December 3, when the government issues a new anti-virus national decree.
Northern regions, where most of Italy’s ski resorts are concentrated, are furious at the prospect of a ban on Christmas skiing, saying the economic damage to the sector would be huge.
Winter tourism employs around 400,000 Italians, from ski instructors and hoteliers to restaurant owners, generating annual revenue of around €10 billion.
Regional politicians insist skiing can be made safe with certain measures, such as the compulsory wearing of face masks and only allowing half the normal number of skiers in cable cars and ski bubbles.
There would be a set number of ski passes sold each day, to avoid overcrowding on the slopes, and people would have to buy their passes online, to prevent long queues forming at ticket offices.
Denying northern mountain regions a ski season would be economic “suicide”, said Luca Zaia, the governor of the north-eastern Veneto region.
Alberto Cirio, the governor of Piedmont in the northwest, said winter tourism was “fundamental” to the local economy, although he said public health considerations should come first.
Reinhold Messner, Italy’s most famous mountaineer, is in favour of a compromise.
He said that while “industrial” downhill skiing was a health risk, because skiers clumped together on chairlifts and in cable cars, there should be scope for allowing more traditional winter pursuits such as cross-country skiing, ice-skating, hiking and sledging.
Skiing mass tourism, with its ski lifts and stations, was just a few decades old and it might be wise to return to an earlier era when people moved around the mountains under their own steam.
That would enable Italy and the rest of Europe to not repeat the mistakes of the summer, he said.
“The mountains in winter also provide the opportunity for sledging, snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, ice-skating and walking,” Mr Messner, who is from the German-speaking Sud Tyrol part of northern Italy, told La Repubblica newspaper.
Didier Chenet, president of an independent ski resort umbrella group, said the government's tone was clear. "I doubt very much that we will reopen," he said.
But other French ski industry representatives continue to hope a compromise can be found, even if it means "sandwiches on the slopes and fondues back at the apartment."
Hotel owners are pushing to be able to continue serving food, with unions saying otherwise they will likely close. French resorts employ around 120,000 people in total.