Traffic in Paris dropped by 15 per cent, police said, even though the designated "green streets" amounted to only 60 km (35 miles) of the 1,600 km (1,000 miles) of roadways in the capital.
But some felt the one day experiment, which the government hopes to turn into an annual car free day, was an expensive gimmick.
Environment Minister Dominique Voynet said it was a chance for the French to rediscover the pleasure of walking, cycling or roller-skating in more peaceful and less dangerous cities.
The ban which would operate from 7am to 9pm focussed mainly on the tourist areas of the capital, such as Montmartre and the Opera district. Only local residents, buses, taxis, motorbikes and emergency services were allowed through road blocks.
Most motorists left their cars in the garage or tried to talk their way through police roadblocks. Some 1,000 bicycles were available for rent from the City Hall.
France has lagged behind some other industrialised countries in its use of public transport, and the government has shied away from confronting the motorists' lobby.
As heat waves pushed exhaust pollution to dangerous levels last summer, several big cities cut speed limits but stopped short of imposing traffic curbs.
Some of France's largest cities such as Lyon, Nice, Lille and Rennes declined to take part in the experiment.