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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Where in France do you still need a face mask?

In France, masks will no longer be required on indoor transport as of Monday, May 16th. Here are rules and recommendations that are still in place:

Where in France do you still need a face mask?

Members of the public in France have been asked to wear face masks for the most part of two years, at times even outside in the street.

Since March 14th, 2022, the facial coverings have no longer been mandatory in most establishments such as shops, and as of Monday, May 16th, it will no longer be mandatory on indoor public transport. 

As of May 16th, you will therefore no longer be required to wear a mask in the following transports:

  • Buses and coaches
  • Subways and streetcars
  • RER and TER
  • TGV and interregional lines
  • Taxis

Regarding airplanes whether or not you must wear a mask is a bit more complicated.

On Wednesday, May 11th, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced that from May 16th onward it would no longer be required to wear a mask in airports and on board aircraft in the European Union. However, Germany has stated that it does not have the intention of lifting its requirement of wearing a mask on its airlines – this would include the Lufthansa airline. Thus, it will be necessary for passengers to still very to rules each airline has in place, which could be the case when travelling to a country that still has indoor mask requirements in place.

EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky specified that vulnerable people should continue to wear masks, and that “a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, to reassure those seated nearby.”

Masks still obligatory in medical settings

However, it will still be mandatory for caregivers, patients and visitors in health care facilities, specifically including hospitals, pharmacies, medical laboratories, retirement homes, and establishments for the disabled. 

For people who are vulnerable either due to their age or their status as immunocompromised, wearing a mask will continue to be recommended, though not required, particularly for enclosed spaces and in large gatherings.

Masks are also still recommended for people who test positive, people who might have come in contact with Covid-19, symptomatic people and healthcare professionals.

Will masks come back?

It is possible. French Health Minister Olivier Véran does not exclude the return of mandatory mask-wearing, should the health situation require it.

What are the other Covid-19 restrictions that remain in place?

The primary restriction that has not changed is the French government’s regulation for testing positive: If you are unvaccinated and test positive, isolation is still required for 10 days, if you are vaccinated, this requirement is seven days. Isolation can be reduced from 10 to 7 days or from 7 to 5 days if a negative covid test is performed, and symptoms are no longer present.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What Covid restrictions remain in place in France?

The French Health Ministry still recommends following sanitary measures such as: wearing a mask in places where it is still mandatory, hand washing, regular ventilation of rooms, coughing or sneezing into your elbow, and using a single-use handkerchief (tissue).