Coronavirus Wreaks Havoc in French Elections

(CN) — Millions of voters sat out the nationwide municipal elections in France on Sunday because of the coronavirus pandemic and a final round of voting set for next Sunday will likely be postponed as the country considers imposing a nationwide lockdown.

The election was overshadowed by the pandemic and saw poll workers wearing masks and rubber gloves as they counted ballots. Turnout was pegged at a historically low 45.5%, down almost 20% from the last local elections in 2014, according to the pollsters Ipsos/Sopra Steria. France has 47.7 million registered voters and more than 25 million chose not to vote on Sunday.

Sunday was the first round of elections for 34,970 mayors and more than 500,000 council seats. Winners of the first round are expected to face off in a second-round election, but the epidemic is throwing into doubt when runoffs can take place and even raising the possibility that Sunday’s results may be thrown out.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo appeared to be on the way to re-election Sunday, but the coronavirus pandemic may force postponement of the second round of voting, set for this coming Sunday. (AP photo/Michel Euler)

“There’s little to no chance of the second round taking place, which should theoretically invalidate the first,” said James Shields, a professor of French politics at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, in an email.

“The biggest point of contention then will be what to do about those mayors already elected yesterday,” he said, referring to candidates who picked up a majority of votes and won outright. “This is uncharted territory and will give the constitutional experts a field day.”

On Monday, party leaders called on the government to postpone the runoff elections as the coronavirus outbreak worsened in France and across Europe.

In the first round of voting, the center-right party of President Emmanuel Macron performed poorly in many of France’s biggest cities: underscoring Macron’s political weakness after nearly three years in office. He formed his party, the Republic on the March, before the 2017 presidential elections but it has not taken root at the local level. Macron’s popularity has been seriously dented due to his pushing unpopular economic and social reforms.

In Paris, Socialist incumbent Mayor Anne Hidalgo took in the most votes. Pollsters estimated she got 29% of the vote, well ahead of her chief rival, conservative Rachida Dati with the Republicans. Dati picked up about 23% of the vote, according to estimates. In third place, Agnès Buzyn, a former health minister in Macron’s government, got 17% of the vote. She stepped in to run for mayor after Macron’s previous pick, his former spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, dropped out of the race due to a sex scandal.

Shields said Buzyn could forge a deal with Dati and others to beat Hidalgo, but he called that a highly unlikely scenario. The contest will likely come down to Hidalgo and Dati, he said.

In a second round, Hidalgo was expected to attract people who voted for the Greens and other left-leaning candidates and win another term. In a speech on Sunday, Hidalgo called on “ecologists, progressives and humanists” to back her in the final round of voting, when she takes on Dati.

Hidalgo has made turning Paris into a greener city her main pledge, and in doing so she’s upset many residents, particularly those in the suburbs who commute into the city for work. She has banned cars in parts of downtown, turned the banks of the Seine River into parks and plans to introduce bicycle lanes across the city.

Dati’s candidacy has given Les Républicainshopes for a revival of their fortunes. The party has struggled in the wake of a scandal that brought down its last presidential candidate, François Fillon. Fillon is on trial for allegedly setting up his wife in a fake job as a parliamentary assistant and paying her $1.1 million in public funds.

Dati is pushing a tough-on-crime message and challenging Hidalgo’s green initiatives.

Overall, Sunday’s election confirmed a political narrative that’s taken shape across Europe: Voters are increasingly attracted to Green and far-right parties.

Europe Écologie–Les Verts, as the Green party is called in France, did well in several major cities, including Grenoble, where the Greens won their first major city in 2014 with Eric Piolle. Piolle has pushed to limit cars, introduce organic school lunches and sought to expand recycling. Green candidates also did well in Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg.

National Rally, the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, also did well and was set to hold onto municipalities it won in 2014. It is on track to win Perpignan, a city on the border with Spain with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Le Pen’s former partner, Louis Aliot, is running to become mayor of Perpignan and he took about 36% of the votes. In cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, Le Pen’s party and its predecessor, the Front National, previously were successful in local elections in Toulon and Marseilles.

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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