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France - Municipal elections

Could coronavirus scare French voters away from local elections?

French and European flags either side of La Marianne and the official portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron in the town hall of Baubigny, a village in central France that has no candidate for the upcoming local elections.
French and European flags either side of La Marianne and the official portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron in the town hall of Baubigny, a village in central France that has no candidate for the upcoming local elections. JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

As France prepares for local elections on 15 March, one question – other than who will win – is what impact will coronavirus have? So far, the government has ruled out postponing the vote, but with over 1,000 confirmed cases and nearly 20 deaths, polls suggest voters could be tempted to stay away.

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The last vote in 2014 was marred by a record abstention rate of nearly 40 percent, and turnout could be even lower this time round with almost a third of the population saying they are unlikely to show up when voting kicks off on Sunday.

The government has triggered several emergency measures to try to reassure the public:

  • Information cards at polling stations
  • Hand sanitizers at the entry of polling booths
  • Disinfectant wipes for voting machines
  • A 1-metre gap between voters in queues

The state is keen to reduce body contact and has ordered over 10,000 pens and counting to enable polling officials to mark a line on the floor to keep voters at a one metre distance from each other. The pens are single use and can be thrown away afterwards.

Nonetheless, if that distance is still too close for some, voters who wish can elect their official by proxy, that is, from the comfort of their own homes.

Voter apathy, a bigger risk

With over 35,000 municipalities up for grabs, the highest such figure in the European Union, the local elections are an important event in the French political calendar.

However, like by-elections, they tend to have lower turnout compared to national polls.

"There is a kind of voter fatigue after having had the same policies back to back from both the left and right-wing governments," reckons Eric Coquerel, an MP with Jean-Luc Mélenchon's France Unbowed party, who represents the Paris suburb of Seine-Saint Denis.

Still, Coquerel doubts that this apathy will be exacerbated by the coronavirus.

"This weekend, I was out supporting candidates in my constituency and I didn't see any impact," he told RFI. "In meetings, the only real change is that people now shake hands less, myself included, given the cases reported at the National Assembly."

Candidates adapt strategy

On Monday, a fifth lawmaker became infected with the virus, bringing the number of confirmed cases to 1,126, while the death toll stands at 19.

Anxiety about catching the virus has forced some candidates to adapt their strategy.

In Mulhouse, eastern France, one of the six cluster areas, outgoing mayor Michèle Lutz of the right-wing Les Republicains party, was forced to suspend her campaign at the weekend, depriving her of the opportunity to meet and greet voters on market day.

The conservative hopeful for Paris mayor, Rachida Dati, has also had to downsize her rally on Monday night, limiting the number of participants to 900 in accordance with a new government ban on public gatherings of more than 1,000.

Courting the elderly

However, Dati, who is neck and neck in the polls with outgoing socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, has advised her staff to hone in on proxy voting to target elderly voters.

She's not the only conservative counting on older voters to help revive her political fortunes. But this traditional electoral base is also the most vulnerable to the coronavirus: two thirds of casualties have been over 70-years-old. Those suffering from chronic illnesses are also at risk.

Conscious of the threat of contagion, the head of the French mayors' association, François Baroin, has told local officials to better inform their constituents about how to cope with the disease.

"It's up to us candidates, the mayors, to inform the public so that this civic duty can be carried out under the best conditions, all things being equal in this epidemic."

The election season was already overshadowed by a dramatic sex tape scandal involving President Emmanuel Macron's candidate for Paris, Benjamin Griveaux.

Now it's no longer sleaze but disease that could overshadow the democratic process.

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