Shortly before the clock struck 9 pm on Saturday, restaurant shutters in Paris came down and people dashed home to beat a strict new curfew to battle the coronavirus outbreak.
Police patrolled streets which would ordinarily be bustling with party-goers to enforce the new anti-mingling measure as the country notched up a record of more than 32,000 positive Covid-19 tests in 24 hours, with 1,868 people in intensive care.
Densely-populated Paris has been an infection hotspot, with bars already shuttered since October 6 although restaurants and other establishments that serve food were allowed to stay open.
Alcohol sales are prohibited from 10 pm and face masks are compulsory in public both indoors and outside.
But there has been concern over people, especially youngsters, flouting face coverings and social distancing rules to gather in groups on restaurant terraces and in other public places.
This prompted the government to announce a 9 pm to 6 am curfew for Paris and a dozen other French cities — some 20 million inhabitants in all — and impose a limit of six on home gatherings blamed for a large proportion of new infections.
The curfew will remain in place for at least four weeks.
At 10 pm on Saturday, the streets of the City of Light were eerily empty apart from a few stragglers risking a 135-euro ($158) fine unless they can provide a certificate to show they have good reason to be out and about.
“I’m coming back from the hospital Curie where my daughter is being operated on. They gave me this proof,” one man tells a group of police officers, presenting a piece of paper.
“That’s fine, good evening sir,” one replied as he handed back the document.
‘There is no-one left’
Food delivery employees zigzagged the streets on bikes or scooters, bringing meals to now home-bound diners in a city where it is common to sit down to a meal after 9 pm.
A handful of municipal buses circulated without impediment down unusually car-free lanes, though mostly empty themselves. Metros and trains also continue operating to ferry people who have no choice but to break the curfew, whether for work or medical reasons.
Paris has not known a curfew since 1961, which was limited at the time to Muslims amid unrest over the Algerian war of independence from France.
Before that, a curfew was in place in the capital during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II.
On Saturday, a total of 1,350 police and gendarmes were deployed in Paris and its suburbs to ensure compliance with the latest restrictions — the strictest since a two-month lockdown ended in May.
“It is telling. It is 9 pm and there is no-one left,” police commissioner Patrick Caron said as the curfew took effect.
“It is no longer time for education (about the measures) but for sanction,” he added. Fines can increase to 3,750 euros or prison time for multiple infractions.
But for the first night at least, members of Caron’s police team in the Latin Quarter — a favourite with students and tourists — were left twiddling their thumbs and musing among themselves about the strange times we are living in.
Curfews are also in place in the cities of Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, Montpellier, Saint-Etienne, Aix-Marseille, Rouen and Grenoble.
Health ministry figures on Saturday showed a record coronavirus-positive rate of 13.1 percent of people tested — up from nine percent 10 days ago and 3.4 percent last month.
In it together
More than 1,200 people have been admitted to intensive care in a week. France now has 5,800 intensive care beds available.
At the height of the epidemic, the country dealt with some 7,000 intensive care patients at once, more than the beds available before the outbreak hit.
In total, 10,399 people are now in hospital for coronavirus in France — an increase of 378 from Friday to Saturday alone.
Ninety people died in these 24 hours, bringing the total to 33,392.
“I remain confident in the sense of responsibility of the immense majority of my fellow citizens,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said of the curfew on Saturday.
“Everyone must understand that we can make it through this only with the daily effort of each one of us, in our professional and personal lives,” he said.