FEATURE: Paris is a quiet and empty city, but still a dream for us international students

In a normal year, around 250,000 international students come to France. With travel bans and lockdowns the experience this year has been very different, as British student in Paris Xander Brett recalls.

FEATURE: Paris is a quiet and empty city, but still a dream for us international students
A quiet Paris scene. Photos: Xander Brett

In September 2020 I arrived in Paris as an exchange student at the Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle (Paris 3) after starting my course at the University of Bristol in England.

Back then – in the break between the first and second waves – we lived a relatively normal life behind our masks. We met up for drinks and went out for dinner… I even went to the theatre and cinema.

Now, the restaurant chairs are piled on tables, and at 5:50pm we rush home for the 6 o'clock curfew.

I’m left alone to remind myself that really, it could be worse.

France, unlike the UK, has so far avoided a third lockdown. Before 6pm, the closed restaurants offering takeaway only serve as reminders that over the Channel people live in absolute confinement… mutations swirling, chasing vaccination success.

France’s strategy in recent months has been to seal the borders, but to enjoy relative freedom within the bubble it creates.

READ ALSO Who can travel into France from outside the EU?


There were very few tourists last term, but now we’re all villagers living in the shell of a world city.

Everything seems so much smaller and the masses usually seen at Trocadéro are a distant memory.

Where pre-pandemic there was a parallel world of weekend breakers and inter-railers, the streets around Notre-Dame now lie empty. The postcard shops are shuttered, the multilingual announcements at Gare du Nord play out to no-one, there’s no need for the currency exchanges.

And then of course amidst it all, Brexit happened. Last month I had to submit a visa application. A huge file of paperwork is required, all copied and stamped. Your photograph is required, your fingerprints taken, added to a red file that’s whisked across the river for inspection by the Consulate.

The experience is typical of French bureaucracy, something we Brits are going to get very used to in the years to come. 

My classes at the Sorbonne are perhaps the only remnants of the usual internationalism of Paris. We trickle in from Denmark, Italy and the UK, absorbing into a city now reserved for its inhabitants only.

Here, students protest at the threat of télétravail (remote working) while Bristol stares in disbelief as the Sorbonne reopens its doors – on a one-week-in, one-week-off basis. Then they wonder why the mental health of British students disintegrates further.

I’m well aware that I’m lucky, and that back home my fellow students are not getting their money’s worth.

Erasmus continues, the Sorbonne sends regular updates. UK government advice is helpful, though the French government's sent me circling for a while.

Above all, I’m grateful the university is open.

Life this term may be different, but it’s by no means over. I’ve returned to the Île Saint-Louis and my routine, perfected last year.

I read French newspapers, cook and drink cognac and coffee. Despite the pandemic, living in Paris is still very much a dream come true. 

Xander Brett is a British student at the Sorbonne university in Paris. You can hear more of his work in his Letters from Paris series.

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Reader Question: Can I get a third Covid booster shot in France?

As France launches its autumn vaccine campaign, almost half of those eligible for the second booster jab in France have already received it. This has left some wondering whether they could qualify for a third booster, using the new dual-strain vaccines.

Reader Question: Can I get a third Covid booster shot in France?

Question: I’m in my 70s and I had my second booster back in the summer but now I see that the new dual-strain vaccines are available – should I be getting an extra booster with the new type of vaccine?

French health authorities launched the autumn booster campaign on October 3rd includes newly authorised dual-strain vaccines – such as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine adapted to BA.1, the Moderna vaccine adapted to BA.1, and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine adapted to BA.4/5 – which are designed to combat the Omicron variant.

It will be followed by the seasonal flu vaccination campaign in mid October.

READ MORE: When, where and how to get flu shots and Covid boosters this autumn in France

In France, about 6.3 million people have received a second booster dose, “or 41 percent of the eligible population,” said the Directorate General of Health (DGS) to Ouest France.

Currently only those in high risk groups are eligible for a second booster shot, including pregnant women, the elderly those with medical conditions or carers – find the full list here.

As almost half of the eligible population have already received a fourth vaccine, many are wondering whether they will be eligible for a fifth (or third booster) in order to access the new dual-strain vaccine.  

According to Virginie, a representative from HAS – France’s health authority – the organisation “no longer thinks in terms of doses for high-risk people and immunocompromised patients.”

Specifically, the HAS recommends that a new injection be given – and if possible one of the dual-strain vaccines – “regardless of the number of injections received up to now”.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Who qualifies for a second Covid vaccine booster in France?

However, French health authorities specified that the additional booster should “respect the minimum recommended time between two doses.”

“This depends based on your profile – for people aged 80 and over, residents of nursing homes or long-term care units (USLD) and those who are immunocompromised, the wait-time is three months between jabs. For the others, the delay is set at six months.”

For those who have already been infected by Covid-19, the HAS recommends that if you are eligible for a second (or third booster) that the additional dose “is still recommended, with a minimum delay of three months after infection.”