“‘It’s just the flu,’ they told me,’’ Ms. Zhou said. “I feel that France is where China was in January. I’m afraid of what’s coming.’’
The lockdown, which President Emmanuel Macron announced in an evening address to the nation on Monday, followed a week and a half of mixed messages from the French government.
Despite the ravages caused by the pandemic in Asia and in neighboring Italy, Mr. Macron and his wife, Brigitte, had only 10 days earlier attended the theater in Paris to urge people to keep going out despite the outbreak. Late last week, even as Mr. Macron announced the closing of schools and nonessential businesses, he allowed municipal elections to take place on Sunday — a decision now widely regarded as a significant mistake that led many French to underestimate the gravity of the risk.
“It’s a bit like an exodus,” Jeanne Bacca, 23, sitting in the middle of Gare Montparnasse, one of Paris’s main rail stations, as she waited for her train to join her family in Bordeaux.
Looking distraught and covering her face with a gray scarf for lack of a mask, Ms. Bacca said that Mr. Macron’s speech had led her to flee Paris — even though she was fully aware that the risk of contracting the virus would increase aboard a packed train.
“The train is what scares me the most,” Ms. Bacca said.
Gare Montparnasse was a swirl of rumors, doubts and anxieties in the hours before the lockdown went into effect. Hoping to join families elsewhere in France, or dreading the thought of being stuck inside tiny Paris apartments for weeks, hundreds of people, many wearing white face masks, thronged the city’s rail stations before being forced to confine themselves at home.
“I’m trying to get back to Toulouse,” said Robin Pereira, 20, a student whose train to southern France had just been canceled. “I don’t have a ticket, I’ll get on the train and we’ll see what happens.”