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'A little unreal': Wary French venture out as lockdown eases

Waiting for trains at the Saint-Lazare railway station in Paris, France, on Monday.
Waiting for trains at the Saint-Lazare railway station in Paris, France, on Monday. BERTRAND GUAY AFP
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Paris (AFP)

French streets filled with traffic for the first time in two months on Monday as authorities began lifting the coronavirus lockdown, though daily life looked very different for those returning cautiously to shops and offices.

"I'm a little stressed out," Fatma Chouria, who cooks at a daycare centre, told AFP at the Gare Saint-Lazare railway station in Paris.

"I'm happy to be going back to work, but we're not in a rush, we're trying to stay calm and crossing our fingers," she said from behind a face mask, now compulsory on public transport across France.

Others avoided mass transit altogether, and the roads bustled with drivers as well as cyclists taking advantage of new dedicated lanes in many cities to encourage bike use.

"It's true that we're a little nervous about public transport, so I prefer to take my bike, even though the weather isn't helping," said David, under stormy skies in the French capital.

Hairdressers, stationary shops and other everyday businesses reopened their doors after eight weeks of forced shutdowns, but it was hardly business as usual.

Masks were everywhere and floors marked with tape indicating the safe social distance between people, including spots showing where to stand on trains and buses, and roughly half of seats marked as off-limits.

In office buildings, employees who cannot work from home are now kept far apart from colleagues, bottles of hand sanitiser are everywhere, and doors are propped open so people do not have to touch them.

"I'm happy to be back, it felt like I was just going around in circles," said Bruno Angilletta, owner of a driving school in northeast Paris.

"But I'm going to go slowly, to make sure everything is right -- buy disinfectant, masks, put all these sanitary measures in place," he said.

"We're stuck in a car with a student for two hours, less than one metre apart, but nobody has explained what we're supposed to be doing. How are we to do it?"

- 'Only two sales' -

France's Liberation newspaper summed up the wary mood with the headline "De-confinement: Back to Abnormal" over a red-and-green front page illustrating the country's split into safe regions and those -- including Paris -- where COVID-19 risks remain too high to lift the lockdown completely.

Cafes, bars, restaurants and cinemas remain closed nationwide, and gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.

Markets can start reopening this week, but grocery stores and other businesses will have to strictly limit how many clients can be inside at once.

On the Champs-Elysees in Paris, usually buzzing with shoppers and tourists, a handful of clients waited outside a Sephora cosmetics store shortly before its opening.

"It's a little unreal, everyone is wearing masks, it's really strange," said a young woman who gave her name as Irina.

Farther up the avenue, sales people at Chanel swiped counters with disinfectant wipes, their white masks contrasting to their chic black pantsuits.

At a shoe store on the Rue de Rivoli, a retail thoroughfare of Paris, doors were open but hopes of a surge of business dim.

"We expect an 80 percent drop in the number of clients," said Alexandre, the manager, wearing masks and gloves.

"Since this morning we've had a few people come in, look around, but so far we've made only two sales," he said.

And the square outside Paris's Louvre Museum, usually swarming with tourists, was empty.

At primary schools, the first to bring back youngsters in a wave of staggered openings, teachers separated desks and taped up posters explaining the strict new social distancing protocols that will be implemented when doors open later this week.

"You shouldn't think this is going to be 'back to school'," said Sarah Rodriguez, a principal in the 20th Arrondissement of Paris.

"There are so many sanitary constraints -- no games, no recess, the distances -- that I don't really know how teachers are going to manage," she said.

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