Routes out of Paris were gridlocked for hours as tens of thousands of people made a last ditch attempt to escape the French capital before the new national lockdown was imposed.
Video and photos captured the mass exodus as Parisians tried desperately to beat Thursday’s 9pm curfew, with President Emmanuel Macron locking down the country from midnight.
It was estimated motorists had created hundreds of miles of traffic jams as they fled to their second homes in the French countryside.
It came as revellers also spent one last night in bars and restaurants before they are closed for at least a month, while also soaking up the last few hours with family and friends they may not see for weeks.
Panic-buyers struck at French supermarkets, stocking up on non-perishable foods and toilet rolls, while many queued up outside barbers for a last haircut, and office workers loaded work equipment into cars and trains.
“I’m stocking up, since we don’t know when this will end,” Paris shopper Catherine Debeaupuis told the Daily Mail.
The lockdown sees France turning the clocks back to the spring when much of the world was forced to remain at home except under essential circumstances – with the restriction in place until December 1 at the earliest.
In draconian measures the British could only imagine – even in March – the French are also required to carry documents stating the reason for stepping outside or risk swift police action.
Meanwhile, masks now must be warn by children as young as six, though schools will be remaining open.
President Macron said the initial curfews in major cities had failed to get a grip on the virus, warning 400,000 of his citizens could die without drastic action, with figures suggesting the country has up to a million infected.
“Our target is simple: sharply reducing infections from 40,000 a day to 5,000 and slowing the pace of admissions to hospital and intensive care,” he said during a TV address watched by around 33 million people.
He claimed nearly 9,000 patients will be in intensive care by the middle of next month “no matter what we do”, though admitted the restrictions are “heartbreaking”.
And added the virus is spreading “at a speed that even the most pessimistic did not predict”.
Some non-essential shops could be allowed to open before the end of November if things drastically improve, while all public services and essential workplaces will remain operational.
On Thursday, France recorded 47,637 new confirmed coronavirus cases, compared to 36,437 on Wednesday and a record high of 52,010 on Sunday.
The total number of infections rose to over 1.28 million while the death tally went up by 235 to 36,020.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced a “lockdown lite” for Germany, which means pubs, restaurants and gyms will close – leading to further pressure on Boris Johnson to take more severe action in Britain.
Protests have broken out in Spain and Italy over the prospect of a return to heavy restrictions.