Ministers in France and Germany's southern state of Bavaria have urged voters to head to polling stations. The calls come despite shutdowns of public spaces amid a rise in COVID-19 cases in both countries.
Voters across France and Germany's southern state of Bavaria are heading to the polls on Sunday for local elections despite fears of low turnouts due to the coronavirus outbreak.
On Saturday night, France shut down all unnecessary public spaces including cafes, restaurants, gyms and cinemas, and residents have been ordered to stay at home to curb further spread of COVID-19.
The government has also closed indefinitely all schools, universities, child-care centers, and banned gatherings of more than 100 people, throwing into question the rationale for holding the polls.
Read more: Coronavirus latest: France imposes widespread closures
But French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that voters turn out to elect mayors and municipal councils to protect local democracy.
"It is important, following the advice of scientists which we have done, to ensure the continuity of our democratic life and that of our institutions," Macron said.
A recent opinion poll showed that 28% of potential voters in France were "concerned" about the risk of infection at polling stations, which are often set up at schools.
France, one of the worst-hit countries by the novel coronavirus in Europe, has over 4,400 confirmed cases and 91 deaths to date.
Officials have ordered stepped-up hygiene measures at polling stations including hand sanitizers and the safe spacing of voters waiting in line.
Read more: Bataclan terrorism survivor eases the pain with her pen
Macron's support falls
The two-round local polls are an important mid-term test for Macron. His party dominated Paris during the 2017 presidential elections but he has since lost support over his autocratic leadership style and perceived favoritism of France's rich and elite.
Macron's popularity plummeted further following last month's sex-tape scandal which left the race for Paris mayor in turmoil. His preferred candidate and close ally Benjamin Griveaux dropped out after excerpts of videos and texts he shared with a woman two years ago were shared on social media.
Across France, some 47.7 million people are registered to vote in around 35,000 municipalities. Polling closes at 6 p.m. local time (1700 UTC). The second round of voting is scheduled to take place on March 22.
Bavaria vote proceeds too
Meanwhile, municipal elections in the southern German state of Bavaria have begun as planned despite being the second-most affected region in the country by the coronavirus outbreak.
Bavaria counted 681 infections on Saturday — an increase of 123 cases compared to the day before — out of 3,800 confirmed infections across Germany.
German states have also stopped public gatherings of more than 100 people. Schools and kindergartens will also be shut in most states until after the Easter holiday in April.
Approximately ten million people are eligible to take part in 4,000 state-wide polls for some 40,000 mayors and city or municipal councils positions, as well as those at the district and county council level.
Read more: Germany's 16 states: Bavaria
Officials say they noted an increase in postal voting this week because the public's interest in participation remains high despite the COVID-19 outbreak.
The local elections are a litmus test for Bavarian parties, following the 2018 state elections and the European elections last year.
"The challenge is immense," Bavarian state premier Markus Soeder told a local news conference, ahead of the vote.
According to polls, Mayor and Social Democrat Dieter Reiter (SPD) has a good chance of re-election in the state capital of Munich, but he may have to take part in a run-off vote on March 29.
Polls will shut at 6 p.m local time (1700 UTC).
mvb/mm (Reuters, AFP, dpa)
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Elections are usually risky for leaders, not for voters. But France's local elections this weekend have raised fears of a health crisis, not just a political one.
There has been feverish speculation here about whether holding the poll during an epidemic would be sensible.
The government has banned gatherings of more than 100 people, shut schools and universities and suspended big sporting events.
But despite labelling coronavirus France's "biggest health crisis in a century", President Emmanuel Macron confirmed this week that Sunday's vote would go ahead.
In the tiny town of Lamorlaye, an hour's drive north of Paris, mayor Nicolas Moula is upbeat.
"Information is the number one key," he says, opening the door to the polling station, in a low modern building behind the town hall.
Inside, it looks as if Lamorlaye is preparing for an agricultural show. There are metal railings creating closed lanes inside the room, and copious amounts of black-and-yellow striped tape on the floor.
"This is where we'll have the hand gel and gloves," he explains. "And here, these markers are to show voters where to wait in the queue, to stop them getting too close to the person in front."More on Macron's France
The French government has issued guidelines to polling stations across the country, asking that people are kept at least a metre away from each other at all times. The interior minister even asked voters to bring their own pens, to avoid transmitting the virus that way.Image copyright AFP Image caption A polling station in Bordeaux - hand gel at the ready for voters
Lamorlaye is in the Oise region, one of the worst-hit by the virus so far. All social gatherings here have been banned, schools are closed, and people have been told to stay at home as much as possible.
Will people really want to come and vote?
"That's why we're reassuring everyone," says Mayor Moula, "by sending out leaflets explaining the procedures. There really isn't any risk."
One of France's biggest polling agencies suggested this month that almost 30% of French voters would avoid the election, for fear of catching the virus.
The government reportedly came close to calling it off. But President Macron appeared convinced that the poll could be held safely - at least, when it comes to public health.
How safe his party will be in the nation's polling stations is another question.
This election is the latest political duel between the liberal president and his far-right nationalist rival, Marine Le Pen.Image copyright AFP
Ms Le Pen's party, National Rally, is hoping to hold on to the eight town halls it currently holds, and also has its eye on winning its first big city, Perpignan.Close race for Paris
Mr Macron's party, La République En Marche (LREM), was newly-created four years ago and is contesting local seats here for the first time.
It's locked in a headline race for Paris, against the Socialist incumbent, Anne Hidalgo, and a centre-right candidate, Rachida Dati.
The original candidate for the president's party, Benjamin Griveaux, was forced to quit last month after a sex scandal. He was replaced by France's former health minister, Agnès Buzyn.Image copyright AFP/getty images Image caption Paris mayoral rivals (L-R): Agnès Buzyn, Rachida Dati and the incumbent, Anne Hidalgo
Out of the frying-pan of coronavirus, into the fire of local politics, some might say.
Anne Hidalgo is currently ahead in the polls by a few points, despite her divisive strategy for an eco-revolution in Paris, which has already seen roads dug up to make bike lanes, and part of the riverside in Paris closed to vehicles.
Paris has been left-wing for almost 20 years, but the conservative Rachida Dati is thought to be a real challenge this time, with her promise of a cleaner, safer city, with more housing and better transport.
Many believe LREM could be heading for a loss in Paris, predicted by one French paper as "modest at best, humiliating at worst".Image copyright Reuters Image caption A crowded field of candidates took part in the final debate this week for the Paris mayoral elections
France's two-round voting system means LREM should have a second chance at the run-off polls a week later.
The interesting question will be whom the party aligns with between the two rounds. An alliance with Rachida Dati could play into the president's image as a centre-right liberal who's abandoned the left-wing part of his base.
Away from Paris, this election is a chance for the president's party to begin putting down roots across the country. The fear is that it'll be a chance for coronavirus to do the same.
Second chances are part and parcel of French politics. Not so much global pandemics.References :
France has had some 4,500 infections and 91 deaths. Anti-infection precautions were in place at the country's 35,000-odd voting stations, with bottles of hand sanitiser at the entrance.
A voter casts her ballot as officials wear protective face mask during the first round of the French municipal elections on March 15, 2020 in Strasbourg, eastern France. Officials have been told to disinfect voting booths and ballot boxes throughout the day, and sinks and hand gels will be made available. People will be urged to get in and out quickly to avoid lines, and floor markings will be laid out to ensure they stay one metre (3.3 feet) from one another. Authorities have already eased proxy voting rules for people at risk or infected with coronavirus and ordered to confine themselves to their homes, as well as for people in retirement homes. People can also come with their own pens for marking ballots. Picture: AFP
PARIS – France voted in municipal elections Sunday that risk a low turnout as the mounting coronavirus infection toll saw the government indefinitely close bars, restaurants and schools.
Anti-infection precautions were in place at the country's 35,000-odd voting stations, with bottles of hand sanitiser at the entrance, a personal distance of about one metre marked with tape on the floor, and booths positioned in such a way that voters can avoid touching the privacy curtain.
Several voters turned out sporting surgical masks and clutched their own bottles of sanitising gel in one of the countries hardest-hit by the virus that has infected more than 150,000 people worldwide and killed over 5,700.
France has had some 4,500 infections and 91 deaths.
"One must vote," Bernard Gallis, 66, told AFP upon leaving an otherwise empty polling station in Aulnay-Sous-Bois outside Paris.
"There is no one here, and the risk is low," he said gesturing towards the balloting station where his wife and six officials seated at tables laden with political party pamphlets were the only other people.
His children aged 40, 36, and 32, however, have said they will not vote due to the virus, said Gallis.
President Emmanuel Macron, for whom the two-round election is a crucial mid-term test, has insisted it goes ahead to assure democratic continuity.
Despite fresh restrictions announced late Saturday -- including the closure of cafes, restaurants, cinemas and gyms -- polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT).
Many in France have questioned the wisdom of maintaining Sunday's vote for mayors and some half-a-million local councillors amid widespread fear that polling stations are ideal germ-spreading venues.
The country has indefinitely closed creches, schools and universities, banned gatherings of more than 100 people, and urged residents to limit their movements in a bid to curtail the spread of the virus.
Museums, theatres and tourists sites such as the Eiffel Tower have been closed, and Macron himself has urged people over 70, who are most affected by the virus, to stay home in as far as possible to avoid getting sick.
On Saturday, several local officials made a last-minute plea for a postponement, a day after Britain announced it had set back its own May local elections for a year over the coronavirus.
But in a televised address to an anxious nation Thursday, the president said scientists had assured him "there is nothing to prevent the French, even the most vulnerable, from going to the ballot box", provided everyone observes basic infection-prevention rules.
Municipalities have announced protection measures including regular disinfection of door handles, voting booths and pens, while advising voters to bring their own writing implements.
And the chairman of France's coronavirus science council said the risk from voting was no greater "than going shopping".
Polling stations will remain open until 1700 GMT, 1800 GMT or 1900 GMT depending on the municipality, with a second round scheduled for 22 March.
Some 47.7 million people are registered to vote in a country where mayors and local councillors enjoy high popularity compared to other levels of government.
But observers say many could shun the democratic exercise this time round for fear of contamination.
'WE'LL MAKE FRENCH FRIES'
A recent opinion poll said 28 percent of potential voters in France were "concerned" about the risk posed by mingling at polling stations, often hosted at schools.
"It is certain that many people will be dissuaded from voting," political historian Jean Garrigues of the University of Orleans told AFP.
This could impact on the outcome, especially if certain demographic groups -- such as older people, who tend to vote more on the right -- stay away in larger numbers than others.
The election will be a key test for Macron, whose party swept Paris in the 2017 presidential election, but has since lost popularity in part due to its leader's perceived autocratic leadership style and lack of common touch.
The French capital will be the main battleground, with incumbent socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo challenged by right-wing heavyweight Rachida Dati and Macron's candidate Agnes Buzyn -- who was parachuted in after his chosen hopeful, Benjamin Griveaux, pulled out over a sex-tape scandal.
"I have always voted, and I will not stop now. One just has to take precautions," 90-year-old Lucien Bonnet told AFP in Saint-Georges-de-Mons in central France.
"Normally, we would have gone to a restaurant after voting, but now we can't. Never mind, we'll make French fries!".