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Democracy in times of virus: France maintains elections

PARIS (AP) — The new virus has shuttered all schools, banished cheek-kissing and upended daily life across France, but President Emmanuel Macron won't let it disrupt democracy, so he's maintaining nationwide elections this weekend.

The virus is sure to dominate the voting process anyway, as French voters choose their mayors and tens of thousands of local officials in the first round of elections Sunday. Authorities fear the new coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes will scare people away from polling stations and have a serious impact on turnout. But postponing the elections would have been complicated, and would have exposed Macron to criticism from his many rivals that he was flouting democratic freedoms.

Voting stations are under orders to allow a one-meter gap between people in queues, and to provide soap or hydroalcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines. In addition, authorities advised voters to bring their own pen to sign the voting register.

“We'll have to make sure that the measures against the virus and health recommendations are strictly respected,” Macron said Thursday in a televised address to the French nation. The speech was aimed at curtailing the virus and calming the public, as France's number of cases jumped past 2,800, including 61 deaths.

Elections are taking place in two rounds in all 35,000 French communes, some of only a few dozen inhabitants. Voters will choose between lists of candidates running for mayor and town council seats. If no list gets the absolute majority in the first round, all lists that receive more than 10% of votes will qualify for the second round on March 22.

The election is a tough challenge for Macron’s 3-year-old centrist party, which is competing for the first time in municipal elections and still lacks local roots across France. LREM (La Republique en Marche, or “The Republic on the Move”) was born during the 2017 presidential campaign to support Macron's candidacy.

The head of LREM, Stanislas Guerini, has set no precise goal for the elections. “My ambition is to allow a new generation of local officials to emerge,” he told Le Figaro newspaper. “LREM is a young movement; I make it grow step by step, with modesty."

The last municipal elections in 2014 saw a record low turnout of 63.7%, and this time it is sure to be lower. Macron's unpopularity may add another hurdle to LREM candidates. His government faced months of protests from the yellow vest movement against perceived social injustice, as his pro-business policies are widely seen as favoring the wealthier. This winter, weeks of strikes and street demonstrations against a planned pension overhaul disrupted the country.

Recent opinion polls show Macron’s popularity rate is hovering around 31%. Macron said he is not considering the municipal elections as a pro- or anti-government vote, since people tend to vote for local figures based on local considerations.

One key battleground is focusing attention, though: Paris. The French capital, whose mayor is an influential figure in French politics and will oversee the 2024 Olympics, is highly coveted. Representing Macron’s party is former Health Minister Agnes Buzyn, who at the last minute replaced the original contender who quit amid a sex video scandal in February.

Recent polls show the Socialist mayor running for re-election, Anne Hidalgo, and conservative candidate Rachida Dati, backed by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, appear in better positions to win than Buzyn.

Macron’s centrist party doesn’t have independent candidates everywhere, and in some places it has chosen to back outgoing mayors from the left and from the right. In contrast to LREM, the conservative party — which was the big winner in the 2014 municipal elections — has an important network of elected officials. The Republicans hope to “rebound” after three recent electoral failures, the party's president, Christian Jacob, said on RTL radio.

The anti-immigration, far-right National Rally is focusing on maintaining its 2014 results, when candidates backed by the party won in 12 towns. “We won't be able to win in as many cities as our national results would imply, because getting local roots is taking time. But we are going to make some progress,” the party's leader, Marine Le Pen, said.

Le Pen herself is not running in the vote. On the left wing, the greens are set to increase their influence, following good results in last year's European elections. They appear to be in a position to win several big cities like Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg.

Their traditional ally, the Socialist Party, severely weakened after disastrous electoral results in the past years, may suffer another blow. The Socialists hope to save face with Hidalgo in Paris and a few other big cities.

Olivier Faure, head of the party, called for a renewed alliance with the greens. "We need to get together to be able to win,” he said.

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