Despite coronavirus restrictions, French vote in local elections

PARIS (Reuters) – French voters headed to the polls on Sunday for local elections after the government decided to press ahead with the vote despite a rapid acceleration of the coronavirus across the country.

Voters are set to choose mayors for 35,000 town halls and almost half a million councillors in a vote overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Saturday evening ordered the shutdown of most shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities from midnight and urged people to stay at home after the number of coronavirus cases doubled in 72 hours.

However, Philippe confirmed that the election would proceed under strict health guidelines with people asked to keep their distance from one another.

“I am going to vote and keep living my life no matter what. I am not scared of the virus,” said one voter, a 60-year-old woman who asked to be identified only as Martine as she entered a polling station in Paris’ 16th district.

In another polling station, people were visibly cautious, trying with difficulty to keep a safe distance from each other.

Poll clerks wore latex gloves and offered disinfectant to try to keep things running smoothly.

Authorities said on Saturday that 91 people had died of the virus and more than 4,500 were infected, including 300 who were in intensive care.

The government has urged people over 70 to stay home as much as possible.

The election comes at a time of growing public scepticism in France about traditional politics. Election officials expect the abstention rate for the election will be high given the coronavirus measures.

One clerk, declining to be identified, said they were having difficulties arranging for enough people to come in to count votes at the end of Sunday, following Philippe’s announcements.

“Macron tells us to stay at home for our own safety and then tells us it’s ok to vote. It makes no sense. I won’t vote,” said 75-year-old Marie-Helene Corbellini.

President Emmanuel Macron decided to go ahead with the elections last week despite concerns that people may be more at risk at polling stations, saying it was vital the democratic system to continue functioning.

France’s municipal elections traditionally see a higher turnout, with local politicians often viewed in a better light than their national counterparts as they are considered more in touch with what’s going on in people’s everyday lives.

Laurence Koch, 38, who works as a city planning consulting firm, said she was in agreement with the government decision on measures to curb the coronavirus, but could not understand why the election had not been scrapped.

“I find the government position hypocritical. Keeping the local election going is pure nonsense,” she said.

The elections are an important test for Macron after a wave of protests over the last year, first from the “yellow vests” movement and now from opponents of his plans to reform the French pensions system. His party is not expected to do well.

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