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French lockdown comes into force in bid to curtail spread of deadly virus

The Concorde bridge, facing France's National Assembly, in a largely deserted Paris on Tuesday, March 17.
The Concorde bridge, facing France's National Assembly, in a largely deserted Paris on Tuesday, March 17. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

France entered a 15-day lockdown at midday on Tuesday that will require people to remain at home except for essential outings in a bid to curtail the coronavirus outbreak.

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The French government has said tens of thousands of police will be patrolling streets and issuing fines of 38 to 135 euros for people without a written declaration justifying their reasons for being out.

France is the latest country to impose draconian restrictions affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. European leaders also plan to ban all non-essential travel into the continent on Tuesday in a bid to stem a pandemic that has killed thousands, upended society and battered economies.

With French President Emmanuel Macron describing the battle against COVID-19 as a "war", governments around the world are scrambling to keep the public safe with measures rarely seen in peacetime, slamming borders shut and forcing citizens to stay home.

COVID-19 has now killed more than 7,000 people worldwide, including over 2,100 in Italy, the worst-hit country outside China, and more than 180,000 cases have been recorded in 145 countries.

Paris exodus

On Tuesday morning, Parisians thronged the city's rail stations and took to the highway to escape the French capital before the midday lockdown deadline.

The Paris exodus drew dismay from provincial France, where many fear that city-dwellers will bring the virus with them and accelerate its spread.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said the government had no intention of preventing people travelling to secondary residences but said the stringent restrictions on public life would apply on the coast as they would in the city.

Most shops, restaurants and tourist sites in the world's most visited country are already shuttered, but in some areas desperate shoppers crowded supermarkets before the new rules took effect.

About 100,000 police and gendarmes will be out on the streets to enforce the lockdown, after Macron warned violations would be punished.

Lockdown pass

People will be allowed to step outside for essential activities, such as buying groceries, walking their dogs or seeking medical help, but must carry a signed form explaining where they are headed and why.

The form can be downloaded here. In the absence of a printer, a written document will be accepted, as long as it is dated and states full name, address, date of birth and reason for travel.

Travelling to work is permitted so long as the work is essential and cannot be done from home.

Border closures

"We are at war, a public health war certainly. We are fighting not against an army or another nation. But the enemy is there, invisible and elusive and on the move," Macron said in a sombre address on Monday.

With European nations already closing their borders, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she would ask the leaders of the bloc's Schengen visa-free border zone to stop all non-essential travel into the area.

This follows a ban on inbound travel to the United States, whose President Donald Trump steeled the nation for a fight against the virus that he warned could last months.

The head of the World Health Organization called Monday for every suspected coronavirus case to be tested, something which would send the known tally of the sick sky-rocketing.

"You cannot fight a fire while blindfolded," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists. "Test, test, test. Test every suspected case."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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