PARIS (AP) – France is holding the second round of municipal elections on Sunday in 5,000 cities postponed due to the corona virus outbreak, amid continued concerns about the pandemic and anger at how the government of French President Emmanuel Macron dealt with it.
With mandatory masks, social distance in lines and with their own pens to sign voting registers, French voters cast ballots to elect the mayor who will lead Paris through the 2024 Summer Olympics and fill local offices in thousands of other places.
The poll organizers wore masks and gloves for protection, and in some places they were separated from voters by transparent plastic shields. Mail-in voting is not allowed in France.
The vote was suspended after the first round of the national municipal elections on March 15, yielding decisive results in 30,000 other mostly small municipalities. Macron’s critics say he shouldn’t have gone through the first round at all, as it happened when the infections exploded across Europe and just two days before France introduced sweeping national lockdown measures.
While the fear of viruses clouded the first ballot, some voters seemed more confident this time around.
“I didn’t vote the first time because I’m an older person and I got scared,” said Fanny Barouh, who voted at a Paris school on Sunday. “I always voted, so I came to vote this morning. And I feel more relaxed now.”
The spread of the coronavirus has slowed considerably in recent weeks in France and almost all restrictions on social and business activities have been gradually lifted in the past month. France has reported nearly 200,000 confirmed cases and 29,781 pandemic deaths, but experts believe all reported figures are too low due to limited testing and missed mild cases.
But the virus is still expected to harm Sunday’s turnout, such as in March. Only 34% of voters had cast ballots at 5:00 PM (1500 GMT). In the first round, a record low of 44.7% of voters came out all day.
The elections, while seemingly focused on local interests, are also seen as an important political indicator prior to the 2022 French presidential election.
Macron had said he did not view the elections as either a pre-government or anti-government vote.
However, a reshuffle of the government is expected in the coming weeks as Macron seeks a new political boost amid the economic difficulties caused by the virus crisis. During the pandemic, the French authorities have been criticized for mask shortages, capacity testing and continuing with the first round of elections, rather than imposing a lockdown earlier.
Recent polls show that Macron’s popularity rating hovers around 40%, which is higher than before the virus outbreak.
The main battlefield is Paris, where the Mayor is an influential figure in French politics and will oversee the 2024 Summer Olympics. Paris Mayor Annie Hidalgo, member of the Socialist Party, ended in March with a strong lead over the conservative candidate Rachida Dati.
Macron’s 3-year-old centrist party directs municipal candidates for the first time and still lacks local roots across France. The party, Republic on the Move, does not have candidates in every race and in some cases it instead supports candidates from the left or the right.
Republic on the Move has set a modest goal of 10,000 city councilors across France and has already acknowledged that they don’t participate in the race in many major cities where local figures from the left or right are better in their positions.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, whose popularity has increased significantly in recent weeks, is running for mayor in his hometown of Le Havre.
The conservative Republican party, which was the big winner in the 2014 municipal elections, is expected to perform well again based on its strong network of elected officials.
On the left, the Europe Ecology-Greens party appears to be significantly increasing its influence by outpacing a traditional ally, the weakened Socialist Party.
Europe Ecology-The Greens and left-wing allies seem to be able to win the mayor matches in several major cities, including Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse. The party supports the re-election of Hidalgo in Paris.
The far-right national rally against immigration focuses on consolidating the results of 2014, when candidates supported by the party won in 12 cities.
Alex Turnbull contributed to this report.
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