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French local elections

Coronavirus could decimate turnout in French local elections

Posters of the French mayoral candidates in Noisy-le-Sec, a working-class suburb north of Paris, 11 March 2020
Posters of the French mayoral candidates in Noisy-le-Sec, a working-class suburb north of Paris, 11 March 2020 © Christina Okello for RFI

France’s local elections could fall victim to the coronavirus, with fears that voters will fail to go to the polls, despite President Emmanuel Macron’s decision that the first round should go ahead on Sunday.

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Party activists in the working-class Paris suburb of Noisy-le-Sec were out on the streets this week in an effort to stir up enthusiasm for their candidates.

Nadège Guillard canvases in her neighbourhood of Noisy-le-Sec in northeastern Paris, stopping to greet residents as she walks past.

“People are friendly and they will tell you what they want and don’t want. But getting them to go out and vote on Sunday is difficult,” says the independent candidate, who is running on a dual list with the citizen-led platform “A new energy for Noisy."

Noisy-le-Sec, a town of 43,500 residents peppered with high-rise towers, saw an abstention rate of 50 percent in the last local election of 2014. A trend witnessed in many suburbs in the north and east of the capital, which have often felt run-down and neglected.

“Look at the rubbish lying on the ground,” Guillard points out, vowing to keep streets clean if her running mate Alexandre Benhaim is elected mayor.

French mayoral race hits suburbs despite coronavirus fears

Public frustration with politicians however, is high and 37-year-old Guillard admits it will take a lot of convincing to persuade the youth to turn up for Sunday’s first round.

"Young people don’t vote and with the coronavirus, I think that old people who often do vote will be too afraid to do so.”

French authorities have loosened restrictions on proxy voting to enable the elderly to accomplish their civic duty.

If don’t vote, don’t complain

Despite fears of abstention and the coronavirus epidemic, Guillard says the local elections are too important to miss.

“When you choose a mayor, you choose a team for six years. So, it’s better to take 30 minutes on Sunday to choose rather than put up with a mayor you don’t want. You don’t vote, you don’t complain.”

Guillard, a psychologist who was born in Cameroon, central Africa, first entered politics in 2017. Back then, as a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s party Republic on the Move.

“Emmanuel Macron appeared to me as the candidate most able to govern and straighten out our country,” she says.

Three years on, Macron’s party is trying to quell a Yellow Vest movement and anger over a controversial pension scheme.

Is this why Guillard decided to run on a new list?

“When it comes to local elections, the issues are different, and I wanted to focus more on the interests of my city as a Noisy citizen.”

Security is one of them she says; referring to the killing last year of a 17-year-old boy who was beaten to death in what was believed to be gang-related violence.

The mother of three, who has helped other mothers wean their children out of gangs through community building, believes in mediation.

Stiff competition

“We want to improve relations between law representatives and the youth so that they know they are not enemies.”

Relations between local authorities and the youth, essentially from immigrant backgrounds, have been strained in recent years, due to concerns over police brutality after two teenagers of North African origin were electrocuted as they tried to escape police in the town of Clichy-Sous-Bois in 2005, sparking months of riots.

Guillard wants better education opportunities for young people, but at Noisy-le-Sec market, her citizen-led-platform struggles to reach unanimity.

One woman tells her she has already decided on the communist party, one of the nine lists in competition, “because they have better incentives for young people.”

And for all of Guillard’s talk of improving the cleanliness of Noisy’s streets, the Green party insists it has the right expertise.

Baptiste Gerbier is a member of France's Green party, which is hoping to make gains in local elections on 15 and 22 March.
Baptiste Gerbier is a member of France's Green party, which is hoping to make gains in local elections on 15 and 22 March. © Christina Okello for RFI

“A lot of these parties became green a few months ago, or a few weeks ago. We have been green for years,” says Baptiste Gerbier, a member of Europe Ecologie les Verts Solidaires, who rubbed shoulders with Guillard at the market.

“We are actually convinced of these issues,” he said, as he continued to hand out flyers promising cleaner cities and energy-efficient housing.

Both Guillard’s citizen-led platform and the Greens are competing with Noisy-le-Sec’s outgoing mayor Laurent Rivoire, whose centre-right list is backed by the ruling party.

“I am the mayor and I’m confident, we’ll see on Sunday,” said Rivoire, who is hoping to secure a third term after ten years in office.

High hopes

“We have a project for an Olympic swimming pool for 2024, it’s very important for us. We have plans for a new metro that will connect many streets. We have many ideas.”

Rivoire’s campaign has nonetheless been plagued by allegations of favouritism and rumours that he offered voters council properties in exchange for votes. Allegations, he denies.

Laurent Rivoire is the outgoing mayor of Noisy-le-Sec who is hoping to secure a third term in local elections on 15 and 22 March
Laurent Rivoire is the outgoing mayor of Noisy-le-Sec who is hoping to secure a third term in local elections on 15 and 22 March © Christina Okello for RFI

“People know me. I don’t think it’s important. They know my integrity, honesty. So, when I speak with Noiséans [people of Noisy-le-Sec], they don’t speak about that,” he said.

Polling booths open on Sunday at 08h00 local time. If a single ticket wins more than 50 percent of votes in the first round, there is no need for a run-off on 22 March.

Rivoire is confident there won’t be one.

“I’m 24 hours each day in the town. I made a 130 million investment in the town without raising tax. Noisy has changed in ten years. So, another six years, I think Noiséans agree.”

 

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