People with masks to protect from coronavirus queue in front of a perfume store in Lille, northern France, Friday, March. 19, 20201. The French government backed off Thursday from ordering a tough lockdown for Paris and several other regions despite an increasingly alarming situation at hospitals with a rise in the numbers of COVID-19 patients. (AP Photo)
Parisians packed inter-city trains leaving the capital on Friday hours ahead of a new lockdown in the French capital imposed to combat a surge in coronavirus infections.
The new restrictions, announced by Prime Minister Jean Castex late on Thursday, apply from midnight Friday to around a third of the country's population affecting Paris and several other regions in the north and south.
The government has insisted that the new month-long lockdown will be more limited than the two others imposed last year, with schools open and outdoor exercise allowed for an unlimited amount of time.
President Emmanuel Macron even insisted Friday that the word "lockdown" (confinement in French) was not appropriate to describe the government's strategy.
"What we want is to put a brake on the virus without shutting ourselves in. This is not being locked down," he said at a meeting at the Elysee Palace.
"Strictly speaking, the term lockdown is not right. What we are talking about are supplementary braking measures," he said.
But the approach of the new curbs in Paris encouraged many to leave the notoriously cramped city for areas without the measure, such as Brittany, the southwest Atlantic coast and Lyon in the southeast.
A spokesperson for national rail operator SNCF told AFP that trains for those destinations were now fully booked after having a 60-70 percent level of occupancy on previous Fridays.
Trains leaving Montparnasse station in Paris -- which serves destinations in Brittany and the southwest -- were completely full after a rush of bookings late Thursday.
Maiwenn, a 19-year old student clutching a giant suitcase, said she had decided to leave Paris to spend the rest of the university year with her family in Saint-Brieuc in Brittany.
"I'm going to stay there until the end of the term," scheduled for mid-April, she said. "It's been roughly a year that our courses have been on distance learning so we're starting to get used to it."
The other regions affected by the new measures notably include the Hauts-de-France region of northeast France which covers the city of Lille, and the Alpes-Maritimes on the Mediterranean, as well as Seine-Maritime and the Eure in the north.
- Haircuts and exercise-
Health Minister Olivier Veran expressed hope that this regional lockdown would be the last, with the situation helped by the onset of spring and the vaccination campaign.
However vaccinations have been sluggish so far in France, with just 5.6 million receiving a first dose, and the situation was not helped by the temporary suspension of the Astra-Zeneca jab this week.
Prime Minister Jean Castex, 55, on Friday was given the AstraZeneca jab to build confidence in the vaccine, even as France's health regulator said it should only be given to those over 55 after reports of blood clots.
As in previous lockdowns, a form written out or downloaded on a phone will be needed to justify why a person has left home in areas under the new restrictions.
Outdoor exercise is allowed up to 10 kilometres (six miles) from home for an unlimited amount of time but non-essential shops will have to close.
However bookshops -- deemed as essential to public wellbeing -- can stay open and government spokesman Gabriel Attal said hair salons could also continue to operate with reinforced sanitary protocols.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said that the new measures would cost the treasury 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion) in additional compensation, relief and unemployment benefits.
According to a poll by Odoxa for Le Figaro and France Info just 56 percent of residents in the areas affected plan to abide by the new lockdown rules.