PARIS (Reuters) - France went under lockdown on Tuesday as President Emmanuel Macron toughened measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus and his government promised financial help worth tens of billion of euros to ensure companies stayed afloat.
France’s 67 million people are allowed out of their homes only to buy groceries, go to work or seek medical care after Macron announced strict border controls and restrictions on movement late on Monday.
More than 100,000 police officers are being deployed nationwide to enforce the restrictions, which are unprecedented in France during peacetime.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said anyone unable to justify their journey, even pedestrians, on a printed ministry document would be fined.
Initial policing appeared low-key. Police near the Grand Palais explained the restrictions to the few pedestrians but were not seen demanding paperwork. Dutch tourists at the near-deserted Trocadero esplanade were told to return to their hotel.
France joins neighbouring Italy and Spain in introducing drastic curbs on civil liberties in response to the coronavirus pandemic. France’s death toll from the coronavirus has reached 148 and a total of 6,600 people have been confirmed infected.
Hours before the lockdown took effect, Parisians rushed to train stations or took to the roads to escape the French capital. Those who stayed behind descended on supermarkets and pharmacies, even though these were due to remain open.
One man, a pensioner loading his car near the UNESCO headquarters, said he was fleeing to his country house 100 km (60 miles) west of Paris.
“Better to be there than couped up in the apartment,” he said, giving his name only as Jean-Yves.
The Paris exodus drew dismay from some in provincial France, where many fear city-dwellers will bring the virus with them and accelerate its spread.
“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.
Augustine, a Parisian heading out of the city, rejected such fears, saying: “That is why we wear masks and bring sanitiser.”
As in many 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% in 2020.
He said France might nationalise big companies suffering in the financial turmoil and would mobilise 45 billion euros in emergency measures to help firms weather the storm.
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.
The lockdown will last at least two weeks, Macron said.
In supermarkets across Paris, people loaded up their trolleys, ignoring government pleas not to panic-buy.
In some supermarkets shelves were empty of flour, pasta and long-life milk. A Monoprix supermarket near the Eiffel Tower store had marked out one-metre intervals in tape at the tills to remind customers to keep distance from one another and sought payment by card, not cash to minimise infection risk.
At the Gare du Nord station, crowds of passengers, many wearing masks, waited to board trains out of the city. Armed police patrolled inside and workers disinfected the platforms.
Junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said the spread of the coronavirus might be exacerbated by people crowding onto trains. Services of high-speed intercity TGV trains would be reduced, he added.
Additional reporting by Tangi Salaun; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones