Coronavirus: Paris, a magnet for the world, becomes a ghost city after a lockdown takes effect

The normally busy streets of Paris, France are nearly empty after the French government put its 67 million people under lockdown on Tuesday (March 17) in an unprecedented act during peacetime due to the coronavirus outbreak.
A man walks by the Louvre Museum in Paris on March 17, 2020, as a strict lockdown comes into in effect.
A man walks by the Louvre Museum in Paris on March 17, 2020, as a strict lockdown comes into in effect.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (NYTIMES) - An exodus from Paris at the Gare Montparnasse train station. A postal worker warning of the plague, the apocalypse and repentance, with the Eiffel Tower behind him. Fear in people's eyes, and tense moments, in a long line outside a supermarket.

But also Parisians out jogging on deserted streets. Or walking their dogs, or trying to connect their children to their teachers on home laptops. And a California couple savouring, for now at least, their first trip to the City of Lights.

As France was put on lockdown on Tuesday (March 17) to contain the spread of the coronavirus, Paris, one of the world's most visited cities, turned into a ghost town. At noon sharp, police officers patrolling the Champs-Elysees, near the Arc de Triomphe, began enforcing new rules of confinement across the capital and the rest of France, one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe with 6,600 cases and 148 deaths.

In what has been described as the toughest health-related restrictions in France's modern history, people will be allowed outdoors for only specific reasons for at least the next 15 days; the exceptions include buying groceries, getting medication at a drugstore, or commuting to work for those unable to work remotely. People leaving their homes now have to sign and carry a form explaining the reasons for their movements, or face fines. Across the city, police officers began stopping pedestrians and pulling over cars to inspect their papers.

"I'm just trying to enjoy the last hour before confinement," said Ms Nana Zhou, as she took photos of the Arc de Triomphe just before noon.

A Chinese student in Paris, Ms Zhou, 24, was now facing her third quarantine in as many months. In January, for the Chinese New Year, she went back to her family home in Henan, a province just north of Wuhan, the source of the coronavirus, and spent 14 days in quarantine. Back in France, she self-quarantined for 14 days, and now she faced an indeterminate period inside her apartment.

She had warned her French friends about the dangers of the coronavirus, but her warnings had been ignored like Cassandra's.

"'It's just the flu', they told me," Ms Zhou said. "I feel that France is where China was in January. I'm afraid of what's coming."

The lockdown, which President Emmanuel Macron announced in an evening address to the nation on Monday, followed a week and a half of mixed messages from the French government.

Despite the ravages caused by the pandemic in Asia and in neighboring Italy, Mr Macron and his wife, Brigitte, had only 10 days earlier attended the theatre in Paris to urge people to keep going out despite the outbreak. Late last week, even as Mr Macron announced the closing of schools and non-essential businesses, he allowed municipal elections to take place on Sunday - a decision now widely regarded as a significant mistake that led many French to underestimate the gravity of the risk.

"It's a bit like an exodus," Ms Jeanne Bacca, 23, sitting in the middle of Gare Montparnasse, one of Paris' main rail stations, as she waited for her train to join her family in Bordeaux.

 
 
 

Looking distraught and covering her face with a gray scarf for lack of a mask, Ms Bacca said that Mr Macron's speech had led her to flee Paris - even though she was fully aware that the risk of contracting the virus would increase aboard a packed train.

"The train is what scares me the most," Ms Bacca said.

Gare Montparnasse was a swirl of rumours, doubts and anxieties in the hours before the lockdown went into effect. Hoping to join families elsewhere in France, or dreading the thought of being stuck inside tiny Paris apartments for weeks, hundreds of people, many wearing white face masks, thronged the city's rail stations before being forced to confine themselves at home.

"I'm trying to get back to Toulouse," said student Robin Pereira, 20, whose train to southern France had just been cancelled. "I don't have a ticket; I'll get on the train and we'll see what happens."

People were packed aboard trains leaving for Nantes or Bordeaux - some sitting on the floor, others standing tightly between seats, physically incapable of practicing social-distancing rules - as they paradoxically turned the trains into what they were trying to escape: high-risk areas of contagion.


Travellers fill a train in Paris, on March 17, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Dr Anne Rasmussen, a historian specialising in health crises, said that every epidemic, from the plague to the Spanish flu, had been marked by exoduses from Paris.

"It's a normal reaction for a population," she said, adding that the current lockdown was "unprecedented'' in France's modern history.

But fleeing Paris also posed other dangers.

"The exodus raises the question of the spread of the virus to other territories," said Mr Olivier Veran, the health minister. "Just because you're by the sea or closer to nature doesn't mean you're any less close to the virus."

With the exodus from Paris, some were grappling to understand the situation in biblical terms.

In Trocadero, a favourite spot for tourists to see the Eiffel Tower, a postal worker named Katian Kibio was engaged in a heated conversation with a passerby.


A man stands in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris on March 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

"This is the plague before the apocalypse," he explained a few minutes later. "Man has to repent."

A few blocks away, a long line had formed outside the U Express supermarket, each person staying more than a metre away from the next. When one woman felt that the person behind her was too close, it triggered an exchange of sharp words.

Up the line, Ms Pascale Chedin, wearing mittens and a scarf around her mouth, said she was "trying to stay calm", though the fear in her eyes spoke otherwise.

 
 
 

She, too, had been planning to flee Paris to the countryside. But her would-be host, an elderly person, had asked her to stay in the capital.

Ms Chedin, who works at a museum that had been preparing an exhibition on Pompeii, said she was now planning to hole up in her apartment and read about the ancient Italian city that was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

But even in Paris' darkest hours, its power to draw people from all over the world was undiminished.

A group of Malaysians posed in Trocadero, the Eiffel Tower as stately as ever on the other side of the Seine River. Despite the pandemic, they had decided not to cancel their long-planned, non-refundable trip to France.

"At least we go to see the Eiffel Tower," said 34-year-old Fadhilah Nor, adding that they had arrived on Monday and would head back to their hotel.

On the Champs-Elysees, a couple from Sacramento, California, Alfredo and Monique Alcausin, were taking selfies with the Arc de Triomphe behind them. They had arrived on Monday and planned to stay four days on their first visit to Paris.


Policemen patrol around the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on March 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

"I think it's a very unique and a good experience to come here without a lot of people," Mr Alcausin, 41, said. "We don't have to fight for a spot on the train, or space to take a picture in front of the arch. It made life easier."

But spotting a phalanx of police officers coming towards them as the clock ticked towards noon, he added, "I guess they'll start kicking people out."