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French local elections

French mayoral candidates adapt to socially distanced local election

In a polling station in Mulhouse in eastern France, during the first round of municipal elections,15 March, 2020
In a polling station in Mulhouse in eastern France, during the first round of municipal elections,15 March, 2020 SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP

With rallies, door-knocking and shaking hands off the table due to the coronavirus, candidates in this Sunday’s second round municipal election are going digital to connect with voters. Virtual meetups on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Zoom have shaken up the traditional campaign. 

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Candidates in some 5,000 French towns and cities have had to get creative about how they interact with voters in a time of social distancing and increasingly limited human contact.

Créteil

On the outskirst of Paris in Creteil, veteran mayor Laurent Cathala, held the first ever Facebook live of his long career on Friday, attracting a record audience.

Some 5,000 people had tuned in by Sunday to hear him take questions for over an hour on how to introduce cyclist routes in Créteil, a town of 90,000 inhabitants, tackle noise pollution and clean up the environment. By Monday, there were more than 6,000 views. 

Elected mayor in 1977, a few months before President Emmanuel Macron’s birthday, Cathala is running in his eighth municipal election as a socialist candidate. The 74-year-old, who has been in power for 43 years, told the daily Parisien that this "unprecedented" campaign wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic meant that he had now "seen everything" in his career.

Rouen

From one of the oldest candidates to the youngest, 29-year-old Marine Caron is hoping to woo voters in Normandy's capital Rouen. The independent hopeful, who failed to make the list for Macron’s Republic on the Move party, is running alongside right-wing candidate Jean-François Bures on a platform called "The heart of Rouen."

Social media has come in handy for her as well, allowing her to gauge voter sentiment by creating polls on Facebook, while zoom conferencing has enabled her to go head to head with rival Nicolas Roussignol Mayer-Roussignol to defend her views.

Mayer-Roussignol has not been left behind either. The socialist candidate has used zoom video conferencing and applications such as Discord, a free voice chat used by gamers, to reach out to potential voters. "Physical contact is important but we can always multiply the channels of communication," he told website parisnormandie.fr.

Neither he nor Caron however have abandoned traditional voter interaction completely. Walkabouts on the market have continued, although at a distance and behind a mask, to avoid leaving out less tech-savvy voters.

Havre

Staying in northern France, candidates in the Havre are also using the potential of social media to get their message across. For communist contender Jean-Paul Lecoq, social networks are the "lifeblood" of Sunday’s second round election, however he cautions against chasing after clicks and likes.

Lecoq has prioritised platforms such as Twitter to interact with voters and pass on relevant information. "It is a means not an end," he said, warning against online bashing, which demeans the public.

Le Coq’s most serious rival is French prime minister Edouard Philippe, who is largely expected to win according to recent polls.

Ile de France

In the town of Evreux in Ile de France, candidates are taking advantage of social media and text messaging to reconnect with the under 30s, whose abstention rate remains above 80 percent. 

Republic on the Move candidate Guillaume Rouger organised his first live instagram chat with youth voters on 14 June and said the digital campaign imposed by coronavirus measures was helping to contribute to a "vibrant democracy."

His socialist rival Timour Veyri shares the same point of view. Veyri, whose most watched video conference drew in over 20,000 viewers, said that the new digital formats had increased flexibility and public interaction, without the heavy workload that comes with organizing a major campaign rally.

The use of QR-codes at markets has also been helpful, allowing voters to download candidate manifestos without having to pick up a leaflet to limit coronavirus transmission. "It is a tool that has been very well received," Veyri said.

Paris

Meanwhile in Paris where a women's battle is playing out to see who will be the capital's next mayor, some candidates are using traditional cold calling methods to convince voters.

"We opened the telephone directory and started scouring names street by street to arrange calls," Danielle Simmonnet, a candidate for the France Unbowed party told website France Info. She insists however that "door to door canvassing" remains the best method.

In the conservative Les Republicains party, Rachida Dati's campaign team has insisted on going out to meet voters, while maintaining social distancing measures.

"We will not hold rallies or meetings in cafés but we still want to go out on the ground," Dati's campaign manager Nelly Garnier said, emulating the view point of many of the other candidates, reluctant to abandon human interaction. "We will not campaign on zoom."

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