(CN) – Despite the coronavirus outbreak worsening in France, voters are heading to the polls on Sunday to elect mayors and municipal governments in what will become a test case for democracy during a global pandemic.
On Thursday evening, President Emmanuel Macron announced the Sunday elections will take place regardless of the outbreak, which he called the worst health crisis France has faced in a century. During the same televised address, he announced the closure of France’s schools, nurseries and universities starting on Monday and he told anyone over 70 years of age to avoid leaving their homes.
It was a contradictory message reflecting the complexities governments face as they try to handle the pandemic: On the one hand, he warned of the virus’ danger and on the other told France’s 47 million registered voters to head to their local polling stations and stand in line next to their compatriots.
“There is nothing that will stop us and I will not stop anyone from going to the elections,” Macron said in his televised remarks. “We want to ensure, despite all these measures, that we can continue to live in a democratic society and that is why the elections will go ahead.”
Macron assured the elections can be done safely. People will be asked to keep a distance between each other and elderly voters may be given special consideration as they cast their ballots.
“It looks like he was of the mind to cancel the elections, that is pretty clear,” said Sylvain Brouard, a political scientist at Sciences Po, a Paris university, in a telephone interview on Friday. “The Élysée really explored the possibility of doing that.”
Despite the risk of making the coronavirus outbreak worse, he apparently bowed to pressure from opposition politicians who charged that delaying the vote would have amounted to a “denial of democracy” and would be unlawful.
On Friday, France had reported 79 deaths due to the virus and found 3,661 people infected with it. The outbreak is expected to get worse in the coming days.
Sunday is the first round of elections for 34,970 mayors and more than 500,000 council seats. Winners of the first round will face off in a second-round election set to take place on March 22.
The biggest prize is the race to become the next mayor of Paris. This contest has proven to be a highly competitive one that is likely to see Socialist incumbent Anne Hidalgo face off with Rachida Dati, a member of the conservative Republican party and a former justice minister.
The two are neck-in-neck in polls, though Hidalgo is favored to win in a second round because she is likely to pick up the votes of those backing other left-wing candidates in the first round.
Hidalgo is pushing to make Paris even more eco-friendly as she moves to install bicycles lanes across Paris. But her green initiatives, including pedestrianizing the banks of the Seine River, have sparked backlash as traffic problems worsened for many commuters.
Dati is seeking to revive the hopes of Les Républicains, a party struggling to regain its footing after its last presidential candidate, François Fillon, was caught up in scandal. Fillon is currently 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.
But the race in Paris, like those across France, is now facing new uncertainties as the country deals with the coronavirus outbreak.
Brouard said there is a risk many people, particularly older voters, will not vote out of concern they will be exposed to the virus.
If turnout is lower among older voters, that could hurt the Republicans but also Macron’s center-right party, the Republic on the March, Brouard said.
“It is very likely that the turnout will be very low, people will fear the queuing, fear the contact” with others, the political scientist said. “It’s likely that the older people will stay at home.”
He said it is difficult to see how the election can be pulled off while also keeping people far enough away from each other to avoid passing on the virus, as health experts are advising.
“I have never seen any polling station where people are at one meter from each other,” Brouard said, referring to the distance European governments are telling people to stay away from each other to avoid contagion. “I have never seen a polling station without any queue.”
Politically, these elections are not expected to give Macron much to crow about. The young French president remains unpopular in France due to his push for deep economic and social reforms that have sparked nationwide protests. His party, which he formed ahead of the 2017 presidential election, is the largest force in the National Assembly but it is not expected to do well in the municipal elections. It has not laid roots at the municipal level, political analysts say.
By contrast, the party of Macron’s main opponent, far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, may do well and even see its vote tally boosted by the coronavirus outbreak if turnout declines among voters for the mainstream conservative parties. At the previous municipal elections in 2014, National Rally won a record 11 town halls.
Her party is projected to win for the first time a city with more than 100,000 inhabitants with her former partner, Louis Aliot, ahead in polling to become the next mayor of Perpignan, a city near the Spanish border.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.