Paris, 15 March 2020 (dpa/MIA) – The first round of voting in French local elections kicked off on Sunday, even as public life was drastically scaled back across the country due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had assured the public on the eve of the elections that they would still go ahead with strict hygiene measures – as he ordered cafes, shops and restaurants to shut across France from midnight.
Voters have been told to bring their own pens and are allowed to wear face masks, so long as they remain identifiable. If this is not the case, individuals may be asked to remove their mask.
The voting to elect village, town and city councils, a subject of fevered speculation only a week ago, has been overshadowed by the new coronavirus, which had infected 4,500 people in France as of Saturday, with 91 deaths.
President Emmanuel Macron’s 4-year-old centrist La Republique en Marche (The Republic on the Move, LREM) party hopes to lay down local roots for the first time.
But it has set its sights low, with leader Stanislas Guerini pointing to a goal of picking up 10,000 local councillors rather than winning control of many major cities.
The biggest prize is of course Paris, where opinion polls show outgoing Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo and conservative former justice minister Rachida Dati vying for first place.
Macron’s former health minister, Agnes Buzyn, is somewhat behind in third place, with horse trading for alliances before the second round a week later likely to be decisive.
The complicated electoral system, with big bonuses for the winning list in each of 17 city districts, makes predictions difficult.
Philippe himself, who is from the centre right and not LREM, is running for mayor of Le Havre, but if successful will not take up the position as long as he remains premier.
Around 47.7 million people are eligible to vote, although it is feared that coronavirus fears will take their toll on turnout.