Telephone campaigning, proxy voting: An unusual second round for France’s municipal elections

The second round of French municipal elections will be held on June 28, three and a half months after the first round. Covid-19 health sanctions mean that candidates still in contention will have to campaign without meeting voters, who are themselves encouraged to vote by proxy or to wear masks in the voting booth.

The first round of French municipal elections at a polling station in Lyon on March 15, 2020, two days before the beginning of France's Covid-19 lockdown.
The first round of French municipal elections at a polling station in Lyon on March 15, 2020, two days before the beginning of France's Covid-19 lockdown. © Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Archives

In the first round of municipal elections, held on March 15 just two days before the start of France's Covid-19 lockdown, the abstention rate was 54.5 percent, the highest rate for this type of election since the founding of France's Fifth Republic in 1958.

To avoid controversy, the government debated the decision to hold the second round at the end of June at length before finally agreeing. The strangest campaign in the history of French municipal elections is now about to begin.

Organising a campaign remotely

This election campaign must not become "a factor in the continuation of the circulation of the coronavirus" and so it is necessary to campaign differently, warned Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Twitter. He referred to the importance of respecting social distancing and the need to "give priority to digital campaigns".

Candidates will therefore have to mount a campaign without holding meetings with their teams, without handing out publicity leaflets in markets and without canvassing door to door. Instead, they should revert to old-school techniques such as the telephone calls to targeted voters, while at the same time relying on a digital campaign.

In Paris, candidates can consult the prefecture's register of voters to find out the identity of abstainers. "We can then cross-reference this information with our membership files to find out exactly who to call," Agnès Evren, candidate for Les Républicains in the 15th arrondissement (district), told France 24.

"We're going to call voters one by one to convince them to go out and vote or to make a proxy vote if they're afraid to go," says Evren. “I'm worried the second round will be even worse than the first in terms of abstention. This will be the key to the ballot."

In addition to phone calls, candidates will have to rely on a strong online presence. Campaigns will have to quickly build up a digital team to try to produce eye-catching visuals.

>> Read: France set to postpone second round of local elections over coronavirus fears

Will this remote campaign be able to replace the game of seduction normally operated by the candidates? "It's a good thing it's a second-round campaign and not a first-round campaign," admits Evren. “Usually you can convince voters by talking to them directly, face-to-face. It's a matter of feeling. Now we'll have to persuade them without looking in their eyes."

To cope with the increased expenses of this extraordinary campaign, the ceiling for reimbursement of expenses will be officially increased by 20 percent, Castaner announced on May 24. 

"The official campaign will start on June 15, but everything that has already been spent, including since the first round and up to today, will be included in the campaign account," he said.

Obligatory masks in polling stations

16.5 million voters are eligible to vote on June 28 in some 5,000 French municipalities to elect municipal councillors.

"All the necessary measures will be taken to ensure the health security of all," said Castaner, referring to practices such as barrier gestures and physical distancing that were also in place for the first round.

For extra safety, each voter will have “to wear a protective mask, use his own pen for the ballot and handle his identity papers himself", said Castaner, adding that masks will be provided free of charge to voters who do not have them.

Introducing proxy voting

Faced with the risk of a high abstention rate, the government announced that it wanted to facilitate proxy voting, a system by which an absent or incapacitated voter can choose another voter to vote on his or her behalf. The proxy must be established by an authorized authority, such as a court or police station.

"We are going to do everything we can to facilitate the collection of proxy votes," promised Castaner.

Electronic or postal voting?

Castaner is reluctant for now to use electronic voting or remote voting, for reasons of security and the reliability of the vote – even if many politicians are calling for it.

"Internet voting exists for fishing associations, trade unions … and nothing is easier than to guarantee the accuracy of the ballot since all the electoral lists are digitised," argued the president of the Democratic Movement (MoDem) François Bayrou, who is in favour of electronic voting.

Currently, remote electronic voting is only allowed for the legislative vote of French citizens who are abroad.

>> Read: French scientific council not opposed to local election run-off in June

"The sort of blocking by France on digital voting seems to me an absurdity," said Bayrou, who is also in favour of restoring postal voting.

Postal voting allowed voters to vote remotely using the electoral materials addressed to them (ballot, envelope, information form, mailing envelope). It has been abolished in France since 1975 "because it lent itself to manipulation", said Castaner. However, it also remains an option for French citizens abroad during legislative elections.

Strident voices in the political parties, such as Rachida Dati, the Paris mayoral candidate for Les Républicains, or Laurent Hénart, the president of the Radical Party, have called for the abolishment of postal voting to be reversed.

"From a legal point of view, there is no obstacle (...), a simple reinstatement article would be enough to carry out experiments on June 28," said Hénart.

But for Romain Rambaud, a specialist in electoral law, it would be disastrous to implement electronic or postal voting only one month before the election, as it would affect the stability of electoral law.

"Voters would have huge difficulty adapting to and trusting this new system,” he writes on his blog, adding that it would introduce huge potential for errors and problems of electoral fraud.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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