Record abstention at French local election, second round hangs in doubt

Officials wearing gloves count the ballots casted during the first round of the French municipal elections at a polling station, in Beziers, France, 15 March 2020. [Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA/EFE]

With a record abstention estimated between 53.5% and 56%, the French deserted the polling stations Sunday (15 March) during the first round of municipal elections, held during a coronavirus pandemic.

A big question mark now weighs on whether the second round should be held as planned next Sunday, in a country where the epidemic is only in its infancy, according to all specialists.

As of Sunday evening, there were 5,423 reported cases of coronavirus in France, and 127 deaths.

Among the some 47.7 million voters called to elect their mayor, less than half will have finally slipped a ballot into the ballot box. The vote marked an important push for the environmentalists, in a general surreal atmosphere after the government decreed on Saturday evening the closure of all “public places not essential to the life of the country”.

In this context, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced from Le Havre, where he is running for mayor, that scientific experts and political parties would be consulted “at the beginning of the week”, hoping to obtain a “republican consensus” around the holding or not of the second round.

Marine Le Pen, the president of the far-right National Rally, called for postponement, but also expressed her wish to have the victories of the 1st round as granted. The National Rally was particularly successful in Fréjus, a port town on the Côte d’Azur, where their candidate David Rachline was elected on the first round.

The deputy leader of the right wing Les Républicains Damien Abad, and Yannick Jadot (Europe Ecolgie – Les Verts EELV) also asked for the second round to be postponed.

While the first results give Anne Hidalgo in Paris a stronger lead than expected (30%), eyes are turned to Le Havre, the stronghold of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, where he obtained 43.59% of the vote and will face the communist Jean-Paul Lecoq (35.87%) during the run-off.

The Prime Minister, who was elected in the 1st round in 2014, is facing a broad coalition against him. If he is beaten, many observers say he would have to resign as Prime Minister.

‘Important to vote’

Philippe has come under intense pressure after choosing to maintain the first round vote despite the health context. The coronavirus did not spare the political class, like the president of Les Républicains Christian Jacob, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.

According to constitutionalist Didier Maus, questioned by AFP, a postponement of the second round would be against the constitution and would de facto lead to the cancellation of the first round, forcing voters to come back to the ballot box.

President Emmanuel Macron stressed on Sunday that it was “important to vote at these times”, after going to the voting booth with his wife Brigitte at Le Touquet, a small seaside town in northern France.

The Interior Ministry said that all the polling stations in the territory were able to function, at the cost of scrupulous compliance with the instructions for social distancing and prioritising the elderly and the frail, and despite the difficulties in many places.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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