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Anxious France votes in local polls as coronavirus shuts cafes, schools

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A voter wearing gloves holds his voting card at a polling station in Paris on March 15, 2020, during the first round of mayoral elections in France, as France battling the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease. – 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. (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP)

France voted in municipal elections Sunday that risk a low turnout as the mounting coronavirus toll saw the government indefinitely close bars, restaurants and schools and limit long-distance travel.

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 (3.3 feet) 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 clutching their own bottles of sanitising gel as the streets of Paris were empty and its usually bustling restaurants and cafe terraces shuttered on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

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France is one of the countries hardest-hit by the virus with some 4,500 out of 150,000 global infections and 91 of more than 5,700 deaths worldwide.

Three hours after polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT), countrywide turnout was just over 18 percent — nearly five percentage points lower than the previous municipal vote in 2014, government data showed.

The capital had a particularly low tally with 12.6 percent.

But some voters were undeterred.

“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.

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Many 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.

Fresh restrictions announced late Saturday included shutting cafes, restaurants, cinemas and gyms, in a bid to prevent hospitals becoming overrun with sick people.

On Sunday, the government announced that long-distance travel, including trains and international flights will be limited and domestic public transport reduced.

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

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Last-minute plea
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”.

Supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, gas stations and tobacco shops — which also sell newspapers, snacks and stamps — remain open in France.

Polling stations will remain open until 1700 GMT, 1800 GMT or 1900 GMT depending on the municipality, with a second-round scheduled for March 22.

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.

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‘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!”.

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