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 over 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 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 from the early morning.
- 'A form of liberation' -
"It's a form of liberation," Didier Semah, a music producer, told AFP jovially 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.
Cafes and restaurants have been closed since October 30, 2020, when France entered its second lockdown to beat the coronavirus.
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."
- '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, with the head of state hailing "a little moment of freedom regained".
"The art of living the French way," happily tweeted Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, posting a picture of himself reading L'Equipe sports daily 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.
The final stage of the government's reopening plan is on June 30, when the curfew is set to be fully lifted.
- Mona Lisa revisited -
While going to a cafe spelt a return to normality 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, who was 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 took 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 the day with a screening of the French comedy "Mandibules" at 8:20 am and had plans to see two or three or more films.
"It's not so much the film that counts as the ambiance, the big screen and emerging a bit dazed," she said.
In a boost for the economy, non-essential businesses from toys to clothes shops, which had been closed since early April, also reopened on Wednesday.
- Third wave recedes -
The loosening of the restrictions comes as a third wave of Covid-19 infections continues to abate with the number of patients in intensive care falling to 4,250 on Monday, down from around 6,000 a month ago.
Meanwhile, the government's vaccination drive has accelerated after an initially slow start, with over 20 million people receiving at least one shot.
The total death toll from the pandemic in France stands at 108,069.
"If we manage to organise ourselves, vaccinate and maintain collective discipline, there is no reason that we cannot continue to progress," Macron said, adding that Covid-19 figures in France were "heading in the right direction".