French voters are braving the country’s virtual lockdown to cast votes in municipal elections Sunday in Europe’s biggest public ballot since it became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
The vote to choose mayors for more than 35,000 municipalities comes a day after the government ordered the closing of cafes, restaurants and all non-essential businesses. The number of confirmed cases in France has doubled in a 72-hour period to more than 4,500 and schools had already been shut and travel curbed.
In Paris’s central 11th district, about 15 people were lining up to vote at around 10 a.m. local time. Not everyone was abiding by the one-meter safety distance indicated by markings on the ground. Anti-bacterial gel was available before and after voting, and pens were cleaned after being used. Voter turnout at 5 p.m. in the capital was about 39%, less than the roughly 55% at the same time in 2014.
“I don’t think it was necessarily good to go ahead with the elections,” said Sebastien Muylaert, a photographer in line at one of the many polling stations in the 11th district. “I’m thinking about elderly people who won’t be able to participate. And this might make a big difference in the results. It’s not very democratic.”
The surge in global cases has prompted governments around the world to mandate sweeping restrictions on public life that are a challenge to the normal functioning of democracy.
In the U.S., the states of Georgia and Louisiana delayed presidential primary voting, and Democrat candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have had to cancel public campaign events. The U.K. on Friday postponed local elections, including voting in the London mayoral race.
The southern German state of Bavaria, by contrast, is also going ahead with municipal elections Sunday, though local media said a large proportion of votes -- in some places significantly more than half -- have been made by post.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron considered scrapping the elections, but relented after consulting opposition parties, which stand to make gains in the ballot. Recent polls have shown Macron’s popularity dwindling, and opposition to his overhaul of the pension system has remained strong even as protests have died down. Macron’s three-year-old party only presented candidates in half of the large cities holding ballots.
“I am the guardian of the security and the health of our citizens, but also of our country’s democratic life,” Macron said after casting his vote. “It’s important to vote at times like these, by being disciplined and respecting the rules, because it’s important to continue to be upright and free citizens.”
Despite these measures, a record-low turnout of 42% is forecast, according to an IFOP poll. At a voting station at the foot of Montmartre in Paris’s 9th district, almost 300 people had cast their ballots around noon, an encouraging show according to the local staff.
Voters under 35 are the most reluctant to vote because of the virus, while only 11% of seniors were considering skipping the election, according to an earlier poll.
“The government should have postponed these elections,” said Marcel Serero, a jeweler who will be forced to close his shop on Monday, as he waited to vote in Paris. “The virus can make a big difference to the outcome.”
(Updates with latest voter turnout estimates in sixth paragraph)
--With assistance from Karl Maier and Tara Patel.
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