France savours new freedoms as cafes, museums reopen

·4-min read

The French on Wednesday joyfully made their way back to cafes, cinemas and museums as the country loosened restrictions in a return to semi-normality after more than six months of Covid-19 curbs.

Cafes and restaurants with terraces or rooftop gardens can now offer outdoor dining, under the second phase of a lockdown-lifting plan that should culminate in a full reopening of the economy on June 30.

Museums, cinemas and some theatres are also reopening after being closed for 203 days.

Bad weather across much of the country failed to dampen the spirits of customers who beat a path back to their favourite cafes and cultural haunts from the early morning.

"It's a form of liberation," Didier Semah, a music producer, told AFP as he sipped an espresso with a friend on the terrace of Felix Cafe in eastern Paris, shielded from a downpour by the awning.

For Sabine Dosso-Greggia, a 45-year-old accountant who was having a mid-morning cigarette and coffee at the next table, it was about enjoying the "small daily pleasures" again.

"It's about being with others and indulging in the things that make up life in Paris, like going to a restaurant with friends or taking the kids to an exhibition," she said.

In the western city of Rennes, Patricia Marchand, the manager of the Cafe des Feuilles, said she had reservations even for aperitifs. "It feels good. There is a sense of euphoria in the city centre."

In another boost for the economy, non-essential businesses from toys to clothes shops, which had been closed since early April, also reopened Wednesday.

- 'The French way' -

With TV cameras rolling, President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Jean Castex enjoyed a first coffee at a cafe close to the presidential palace in Paris, the head of state hailing "a little moment of freedom regained".

"The art of living the French way," tweeted Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, posting a picture of himself reading the sports newspaper L'Equipe at a corner cafe.

But with showers forecast for much of the day, and most venues allowed to use only half of their outdoor seating, some restaurants decided to delay reopening until June 9, when they will be allowed serve clients indoors.

And while many people have booked outdoor tables for dinner or drinks on Wednesday evening, the party will wind up early due to a curfew, even if it was pushed back Wednesday from 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm.

Stephanie Mathey, owner of three Paris bistros, told AFP she was treating this stage of the reopening as a dress rehearsal for the summer.

"Like a diesel engine, we'll be warming up slowly," she told AFP.

- Mona Lisa revisited -

While going to a cafe spelt freedom for some, for others it was the chance to see the Mona Lisa again.

"I missed her over the past seven months. I'm glad to see her again," said 47-year-old Frederic Destival, among the first visitors to the Louvre museum when it reopened at 9:00 am to applause from those queueing outside.

Across the Seine river at the Musee d'Orsay, Isabelle Berthonneau said she had felt so starved of art over the past months she had taken a week's holidays to cram in exhibitions.

"We have to starting living again," 54-year-old Berthonneau said.

Cinemas, also shut for the last six months, have a huge backlog of movies to show and some film buffs were up early to get their fix.

Luce Van Dam, 17, started her day in the capital with a screening of the French comedy "Mandibules" at 8:20 am and had plans to see two or three or more films.

But many concert halls and theatres remained closed, arguing their productions could not make money given the 35-percent-capacity limit imposed by the government for the next three weeks.

The loosening of the restrictions comes as a severe third wave of Covid-19 infections continues to abate. The number of patients in intensive care fell to 3,862 on Wednesday, down from around 6,000 a month ago. Over the last seven days, the number of new cases has fallen by 18 percent.

After a slow start, the government's vaccination drive has accelerated, with more than 21.5 million people, nearly a third of the population, having received at least one shot.

"If we manage to organise ourselves, vaccinate and maintain collective discipline, there is no reason that we cannot continue to progress," Macron said.

But he added: "We need to remain rigorous on the question of variants," the new and sometimes more virulent strains of the original Covid-19 virus.


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