Virus-era voting: France holds local elections despite fears

1010 WINS Newsroom
March 15, 2020 - 8:22 am

A volunteer sprays hydroalcoholic gel on a voter during the first round of the municipal elections, in Strasbourg, eastern France, Sunday March 15, 2020. The new virus has shuttered all schools, banished cheek-kissing and upended daily life across France, but President Emmanuel Macron won't let it disrupt democracy, so he's maintaining nationwide elections this weekend. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

PARIS (AP) — France is holding nationwide elections Sunday to choose all of its mayors and other local leaders despite a crackdown on public gatherings because of the new virus.

Voting stations opened just as a drastic new order came into effect shutting down all of France's restaurants, museums, and most stores to stem the spreading coronavirus, hitting the economy hard.

The disease for most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness. France has around 4,500 cases of the virus, including 91 people who have died.

President Emmanuel Macron decided against delaying the elections amid concerns that would be undemocratic. But the virus is hurting turnout, which was 18% at midday, compared to 23% at the same time during the last municipal elections in 2014.

Those who showed up had described a feeling of duty, despite the challenges.

“It's not ideal but it's important we go vote and life in this city and in society shouldn't stop," said Laure Marie Diers, a manager in Paris. “We need to do as best as we can, and that's why I came to vote this morning.”

The government ordered unprecedented sanitary measures at polling stations.

Organizers were told to impose a one-meter (about three-foot) gap between people in lines, and to provide soap or hydro-alcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines. Voters were told to bring their own pens to sign the voting register.

Associated Press reporters observed uneven application of the rules in different polling stations.

Some had marked off the floor with tape to indicate one-meter spacing; others had no indication and voters bunched up irregularly. Some voters washed their hands before and after casting a ballot, others didn't bother. Staffers reassured voters that they were disinfecting voting booths every hour.

Sunday's elections are the first round of a two-round election for leadership of all 35,000 French communes, some of only a few dozen inhabitants. Voters will choose among lists of candidates running for mayor and town council seats.

If no list gets the absolute majority in the first round, all lists that receive more than 10% of votes will qualify for the second round, currently scheduled for March 22.

While most voters cast ballots based on local considerations, the elections are an important gauge of public sentiment before the 2022 presidential election.

Sunday's voting is a tough challenge for Macron’s 3-year-old centrist party, which is competing for the first time in municipal elections and still lacks local roots across France. His government is also unpopular after months of protests from the yellow vest movement against perceived social injustice, and several weeks of strikes and demonstrations against a planned pension overhaul.

The conservative Republicans party, the greens party, the far right National Rally and the struggling Socialists are also vying for key mayoral seats and to strengthen or save their nationwide political bases.

The main battleground is Paris, whose whose mayor is an influential figure in French politics and will oversee the 2024 Olympics.

“If the government says we can vote, I'd hope we can trust them," said Frederic Bouchardie, a 46-year-old company owner in Paris. “Voting is an important civic duty, we need to elect our mayor.”

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David Keyton in Paris, Robert Edme in Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle, and Jean-Francois Badias in Strasbourg, contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak