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France votes in nationwide municipal elections despite coronavirus lockdown

People vote in municipal elections in Nice on March 15, 2020.
People vote in municipal elections in Nice on March 15, 2020. © Eric Gaillard, Reuters

French citizens went to the polls on Sunday for local elections despite a nationwide lockdown announced just a day earlier brought on by the coronavirus outbreak – and which might end up convincing many voters to stay at home. 

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President Emmanuel Macron, for whom the two-round polls are a crucial mid-term test, has insisted that the polls to elect mayors and municipal councils must go ahead to assure democratic continuity in the country.

And despite fresh restrictions announced Saturday evening, including the closure of all non-essential public places such as cafés, restaurants, cinemas and gyms, the elections will go ahead.

Officials have said that voting will take place under the strictest conditions to counter widespread fear that polling stations are ideal germ-spreading venues and a particular risk for older people.

Macron said Thursday that scientists had assured him “there is nothing to prevent the French, even the most vulnerable, from going to the ballot box”, provided everyone observes basic infection-prevention rules.

The interior ministry said turnout nationwide at noon was 18.3 percent on Sunday, down 5 percent from that recorded at midday in 2014.

Municipalities have announced various measures to try to keep voters infection-free, including the regular disinfection of voting booths, ensuring a safe personal distance between those waiting in line, and providing sanitising hand gels upon entry and exit.

A second round of voting is currently set for March 22.

“It is important at this time, following the advice of scientists as we have done, to ensure the continuity of our democratic life and that of our institutions,” Macron said.

But some observers say many are likely to opt to stay home to avoid the novel coronavirus that has already killed dozens and infected thousands more in France alone.

A recent opinion poll said 28 percent of potential voters in France were “concerned” about the risk posed by mingling at polling stations, often set up in schools.

Some 47.7 million people are registered to vote in some 35,000 municipalities in a country where mayors and local councillors enjoy high popularity compared to those at other levels of government.

The election will be a key test for Macron, whose party swept Paris in the 2017 presidential election but has since lost popularity, in part due to perceptions that he has an autocratic leadership style and lacks a common touch.

The French capital will be the main battleground, with incumbent Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo challenged by right-wing former justice minister Rachida Dati and Macron’s candidate Agnes Buzyn – who was parachuted in after Macron's chosen hopeful, Benjamin Griveaux, withdrew over a sex-tape scandal.

‘Many will be dissuaded’

Many in France have questioned the wisdom of holding the vote even as the country indefinitely closed all nurseries, schools and universities, banned gatherings of more than 100 people and urged residents to limit their movements.

Britain on Friday postponed its own May local elections for a year, citing the coronavirus.

But French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner defended his government’s decision, saying there were about 1,000 voters to every French polling station on average.

And even if the participation rate is 60 percent – which is high – that would mean 600 people spread out over 10 to 12 hours, depending on the district.

 

The risk for the elderly was no greater “than going shopping”, insisted Jean-François Delfraissy, chairman of France’s coronavirus science council.

“It is certain that many people will be dissuaded from voting,” political historian Jean Garrigues of the University of Orléans told AFP.

Polls show that young people – who are not at high risk of dying from COVID-19 – are among the most likely to cite it as a reason not to vote. This could impact parties that young people are more likely to support – the Greens and the far-left France Unbowed, said Garrigues.

But older people, even though they are usually more motivated to vote, may end up staying away out of fear, thus robbing parties such as the right-wing Les Republicains or Macron’s centre-right Republic on the Move party of votes.

As a result, Garrigues said, the political repercussions of high voter abstention among both the young and the old could cancel each other out.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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