Parisians flee city as lockdown begins

Elizabeth Pineau and Geert De Clercq
French President Emmanuel Macron has told people in a televised address to stay home for 15 days

Parisians have rushed to rail stations and taken to the highway to escape the French capital before a lockdown imposed to slow the rate of coronavirus contagion kicked in at midday.

Those who stayed behind descended on supermarkets and pharmacies even as these were due to remain open under the sweeping restrictions on public life announced by President Emmanuel Macron late on Monday.

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

One man, a pensioner who was loading his car near the UNESCO headquarters, said he was fleeing to his country house 100km west of Paris.

"Better to be there than cooped up in the apartment," he said, giving his name only as Jean-Yves.

Along with controls on France's land borders, Macron ordered people to stay at home from 1100 GMT on Tuesday and to leave only to buy groceries, travel to work if essential, exercise or for medical care. The army will help move the sick to hospitals, he said.

France's death toll from the coronavirus has reached 148 and a total of 6600 people have been confirmed infected.

As in other European countries including Italy, Germany and Spain, schools are closed, restaurants and bars shuttered up, and factories idle.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said he expected the French economy to shrink by 1 per cent in 2020.

Airbus said it would temporarily stop production at its plants in France and Spain. Carmaker Renault announced it was shutting down industrial sites in France and Spain until further notice.

In central Paris, normally choked with traffic, children played out in the streets before the lockdown came into force. It will last at least two weeks, Macron said.

In supermarkets across the city, people loaded up their trolleys, ignoring the government's plea not to panic-buy.

In one Monoprix supermarket in the 15th arrondissement, close to the Eiffel Tower, the shelves were empty of flour, pasta and long-life milk. At the tills, the store had marked out one-metre intervals in tape to remind customers to keep distance from one another and sought payment by card, not cash.

At the Gare du Nord station, crowds of passengers, many wearing masks, waited to board their trains out of the city. Armed police patrolled inside and a worker disinfected the main hallway.

Junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said the government had not wanted to prevent people travelling to the provinces. But he acknowledged the spread of the coronavirus might be exacerbated by people crowding onto trains.

In provincial France, some were incredulous at the influx of city folk.

"Parisians are fleeing the city and will infect the provinces, just to be confined in the open air. This exodus is unthinkable, selfish and a ticking time-bomb," one Twitter user wrote.

One traveller, at the Gare du Nord, 44-year-old Stephane Legrand, shrugged at the suggestion the exodus was going to help spread the contagion.

"The virus is global already. I'm normally in good health, I'm never ill, so I hope all will be well."