France holds municipal elections postponed by virus crisis

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People wearing face mask and visor to protect against coronavirus sit behind a glass shield during a rehearsal of the vote for the local elections scheduled for Sunday, June 28, in Paris, Friday, June 26, 2020. France is to hold its Covid-19 delayed second round of local elections on June 28. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PARIS (AP) — France is holding the second round of municipal elections in 5,000 towns and cities Sunday that got postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, amid lingering worries about the pandemic and anger at how French President Emmanuel Macron’s government handled it.

Wearing mandatory masks, social distancing in lines and carrying their own pens to sign voting registers, French voters cast ballots to choose the mayor who will lead Paris through the 2024 Summer Olympics and to fill local offices in thousands of other places.

The voting was suspended after the first round of the nationwide municipal elections on March 15, which produced decisive outcomes in 30,000 other mostly small communes. Macron’s critics say he shouldn’t have allowed the first round to go ahead at all, since it was held just as infections were exploding across Europe and just two days before France introduced sweeping nationwide lockdown measures.

While virus fears clouded the first round of voting, some voters appeared more confident this time around.

“I didn’t go and vote the first time around because I am an elderly person and I got scared,” said Fanny Barouh, voting in a Paris school on Sunday. “I’ve always voted, so I came to vote this morning and I feel more relaxed now.”

The spread of the coronavirus has slowed significantly in France in recent weeks and almost all restrictions on social and business activity have been gradually lifted over the last month. France has reported nearly 200,000 confirmed cases and 29,781 deaths in the pandemic but experts believe all reported figures are undercounts due to limited testing and missed mild cases.

But the virus is still expected to hurt Sunday’s turnout, as it did in March. Only 15% of voters had cast ballots by noon. In the first round, a record low of 44.7% of voters turned out for the whole day.

The elections, though ostensibly focused on local concerns, are also seen as a key political indicator ahead of the 2022 French presidential election.

The main battleground is Paris, where the mayor is an influential figure in French politics and will oversee the 2024 Summer Olympics. Paris Mayor Annie Hidalgo, a Socialist Party member, finished in March with a strong lead ahead of conservative candidate Rachida Dati.

Macron’s 3-year-old centrist party is fielding municipal candidates for the first time and still lacks local roots across France. The party, Republic on the Move, doesn’t have candidates in every race and in some instances is backing candidates from the left or the right instead.

Macron’s government has faced criticism during the pandemic over mask shortages, testing capacity and for going ahead with the first round of elections instead of imposing a lockdown earlier. A government reshuffle is expected in the wake of Sunday’s elections.

Recent opinion polls show Macron’s popularity rating is hovering around 40%, which is higher than from before the virus outbreak.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, whose popularity has significantly increased in recent weeks, is running for mayor in his hometown of Le Havre.

The conservative Republicans party, which was the big winner in the 2014 municipal election, is expected to do well again based on its strong network of elected officials.

On the left, the Europe Ecology-The Greens party looks to significantly increase its influence by surpassing a traditional ally, the weakened Socialist Party.

Europe Ecology-The Greens and leftist allies appear to be in a position to win the mayoral races in several big cities, including Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse. The party is backing Hidalgo’s reelection in Paris.

The anti-immigration, far-right National Rally is focusing on consolidating its 2014 results, when candidates backed by the party won in 12 towns.

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Alex Turnbull in Paris contributed.

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