PARIS – It’s a great day for the French. Sidewalk cafes and restaurants reopened on Wednesday after a six-month coronavirus shutdown deprived residents of the essence of French “joie de vivre” – sipping coffee and red wine with friends.
The French government is gradually lifting restrictions to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 and give citizens back a part of their world-famous lifestyle. As part of the first stage of the plan, the night curfew in France at 7 p.m. has been pushed back to 9 p.m. and museums, theaters and cinemas have reopened their doors as well as outdoor café terraces.
President Emmanuel Macron took a seat on the terrace of a café, chatting with customers. Prime Minister Jean Castex, who was planning to attend a cinema later on Wednesday, projected a mood of measured optimism.
“Let’s get used to trying to live together,” Macron told reporters. “If we manage to organize ourselves collectively and continue to vaccinate, to have a common discipline as citizens, there is no reason why we cannot continue to move forward.
Actor Emmanuelle Beart went to a cinema in Paris where his latest film “L’Etreinte” (“The embrace”) was screened. The appetite for seeing movies was such that many in Paris lined up for breakfast to see a movie instead of having their morning croissant.
Film buff Michael Wish, who works in the industry, set his alarm clock to make sure he would show “Drunk” at 9 o’clock.
“I really need to go to the movies,” he says. “I go to the movies maybe twice a week, at a minimum. So for me it was really, really, really important … Today, it’s almost moving to be here.
France is not the first European country to find some semblance of social and cultural life. Italy, Belgium, Hungary and other countries are already allowing alfresco dining while drinking and eating indoors, Britain began Monday.
Restaurants in France have been closed since the end of October, the longest period of any European country except Poland, where bars and restaurants reopened for outdoor service on Saturday after being closed for seven months.
However, the French government has put limits on the fun we can have. Movie theaters can only accommodate 35% of the capacity, while museums have to restrict entrances to leave space between visitors. Restaurants can only occupy 50% of their outdoor seating and have no more than six people at a table.
Leading figures in the restaurant industry in France were frustrated by the government’s perceived inability to protect their precious gastronomy from the worst. Yet many, like Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse, have chosen to restrain their anger at the crippling six-month closures and instead imagine the future of bustling dining rooms and full wine bottles.
“Has the government done enough? The answer is “no” … (but) optimism is a decision. We have decided to be optimistic. French gastronomy will continue, ”he declared.
From June 9, the French government plans to reduce the curfew to 11 p.m. and allow meals inside. Also on this date, France will start welcoming tourists from non-European destinations provided they have some sort of coronavirus passport or health card. The final phase of the three-step reopening plan is slated for June 30, when the curfew will end and all other restrictions will be lifted, pandemic conditions permitting.
Macron’s plans to get France out of the pandemic are not just about reviving long-closed restaurants, shops and museums, but also preparing for his possible campaign for a second term. Ahead of next year’s presidential election, Macron is focused on saving jobs and reviving the pandemic-stricken French economy.
France has recorded more than 108,000 deaths from COVID-19, among the highest tolls in Europe. But virus deaths, intensive care unit admissions and the coronavirus infection rate are now on the decline.
Dr Michel Slama, head of the intensive care unit at Amiens hospital, said his position, like Macron’s, was “optimistic but cautious”.
“We are watching the reopening, but worried is not the word,” he told The Associated Press. “There has been a significant drop in emergency hospitalizations for the virus in France. It’s good news. The current high vaccine rate will hopefully help us avoid another wave. “
About 40% of France’s adult population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – but that rate is still well below 70% in Britain and several other EU countries.
The tourists waited with enthusiasm and palpable emotion for the cordon around the most visited museum in the world and the house of the “Mona Lisa”, the Louvre, to be finally lifted.
“I am extremely moved. In fact, the moment I entered the Louvre, really just in the gallery, I immediately started to cry. Real tears of joy, ”said Pauline Lacroix, psychotherapist.
“It means a lot, you know. This means that COVID-19 is starting to end, when all museums and public spaces open, ”said another visitor, Walid Hneini.
Benoit Puez, a resident of Paris, was more low-key on the opening, giving him a Gallic shrug.
“Maybe I didn’t really miss it, but we’re happy it reopens. It’s a step, ”he said.
Thomas Adamson reported from Leeds, England. Masha Macpherson, John Leicester and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.