PARIS - France is to boost its preparedness for a possible bird flu outbreak by conducting major exercises and extending a ban on outdoor poultry rearing, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Friday.

The government is "mobilised in the face of this threat," Villepin said after a meeting of cabinet ministers to discuss the alarming spread of the disease.

"We want to keep adapting our responses and it's for that reason I have decided we will conduct a major exercise in February on a regional scale and a national exercise in March," he said.

The simulations will follow a smaller test carried out last November around a farm in western France.

Villepin said restrictions against outdoor poultry raising already in place in a quarter of the country would be extended to cover more than half the country, or 58 of France's 96 départements, or administrative regions.

European countries are increasingly worried over the spread of bird flu because of growing fears that the virus may mutate into a form transmissible between humans and create a pandemic that could kill millions.

Bird flu has already killed nearly 80 people in Southeast Asia and China since 2003 and Turkey, outside the European Union's southeastern border, has also reported three human deaths.

Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau said the ban on outdoor poultry raising was decided "in light of the events currently happening in Turkey" and would include French regions through which migratory birds pass.

"If the threat comes closer, we may impose a wider ban over the whole country," he said.

France is especially sensitive to the disease's spread: it is the biggest poultry producer in the European Union — and the fourth biggest in the world after the United States, China and Brazil — and any outbreak would harm its large farm sector.

So far, however, no cases of bird flu have been reported in France.

Villepin said he had ordered his health minister, Xavier Bertrand, to consult with doctors as to how tasks would be divided up should an epidemic occur, and called for a detailed plan to be readied by the end of the month.