French city-dwellers flee for countryside in virus lockdown

Paris (AFP) –


As France entered lockdown at midday Tuesday, city streets were largely abandoned after a panicky exodus to country homes where many prepared to wait out what President Emmanuel Macron has termed a "war" on the coronavirus outbreak.

In an unprecedented peacetime measure, millions have been ordered to work from home and look after their children as schools, cafes, shops and even public parks and gardens were closed.

A government decree required people venturing outside to show a certificate to justify their movements, which were limited to buying food, seeing a doctor, walking the dog or going for a jog, but prohibited meeting up with family or friends.

Going to work is allowed only if a company cannot make provisions for staff to work from home, and then only if special anti-infection measures are put in place at the office.

Supermarkets were overrun Tuesday as the country's 65 million residents stocked up in preparation for the confinement, initially set for two weeks.

"We'll go crazy if we stay home!" grumbled Jean, a Parisian in his 70s who was shopping in a city where gathering in parks, cafes, bars and restaurants is an key part of daily life.

"I don't read, I'm not the kind of person who watches TV all day, and I live alone! I have to get out a bit," he told AFP, interrupting himself to say: "Damn, I forgot my (hand sanitising) gel, I'll have to go back up to fetch it."

- Empty shelves -

On Monday, Macron addressed an anxious nation to say that strict confinement was the only effective weapon against a virus that has infected more than 6,600 people and killed 148 in France.

The government is to deploy 100,000 police to patrol the streets, and violators can be fined up to 135 euros ($150).

The measure came after thousands of people flouted less severe restrictions on mass gatherings to shop at food markets and relax in parks on a balmy Sunday.

Many ignored advice not to shake hands or exchange traditional cheek kisses, and to keep a safe personal distance of one metre (3.3 feet).

In the capital, sidewalks, and public transport that has been reduced under the new anti-contagion regime, were much emptier than usual.

The Montmartre region in northern Paris, usually thronged with tourists, was all but deserted apart from a few joggers and people walking dogs.

At supermarkets and pharmacies, floor tape marked the distance clients are to keep from one another, and only a few were let in at a time.

Many shops had long queues of customers, and stocks of pasta, rice, toilet paper and tissues had run out long before lunchtime.

- 'Just crazy' -

"It's just crazy!" said a shelf stocker in Paris, declining to give his name without his manager's approval.

Parisians left for the countryside in droves on Monday, in cars loaded with groceries that caused heavy traffic on main roads.

Traffic had eased to a trickle by Tuesday morning.

"Two people confined to 24 square metres (260 square feet) without having access to nature or even a park, it's just not possible," said Marie Bournazel, who was escaping Paris by train for Bordeaux, where her mother lives.

"We brought a lot of luggage as we expect to stay there for two, three weeks, maybe more," she said.

Justine Daragon fled the capital to join family in Normandy, "annoyed by the lack of civic consideration among Parisians."

"My father and my mother-in-law, who we will be staying with... have warned us of the risk, but we are all very careful at home," she said.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said there was "no question of preventing people from leaving, but I urge them to be reasonable and, whatever their place of residence, to stay at home."

Transport secretary Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said the government would reduce the number of trains "to prevent that such episodes of exodus spread the virus more widely around France."

Older people are most at risk of falling seriously ill from the coronavirus, and Macron had urged people over 70 to stay at home whenever possible to limit contact with virus-carriers, who do not always show symptoms.