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SYRIA

Syria claims France will interfere in its election

The Syrian foreign ministry said on Monday that France and Germany intend to prevent Syrians living in their countries from voting in the country's's upcoming presidential election, expected to return President Bashar al-Assad to power.

Syria claims France will interfere in its election
The silhouette of a Syrian man is seen through an election campaign portrait of President Bashar al-Assad as he hangs it on a billboard in Damascus. Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP

Germany and France are "preventing Syrians living in their territory from voting", the foreign ministry said.

"France… is carrying out a hostile press campaign" against next month's election, it said in a statement carried by state news agency SANA.

"It has officially informed our embassy in Paris of its opposition to the holding of the vote on French territory, including the Syrian embassy."

French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal implicitly confirmed the decision.

"The organization of foreign elections on French soil is covered by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of April 24th, 1963," he told AFP.

"As we are authorized by this convention, French authorities have the right to oppose the holding of this election anywhere on French territory."

He reiterated France's demand a "political solution" to conflict in Syria as well as a transition process and Assad's departure from office.

"Bashar al-Assad, who is responsible for the death of 150,000 people, cannot represent the future of the Syrian people," Nadal said.

More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict, which began with anti-government protests in mid-March 2011.

Despite the violence, Damascus has set the presidential election for June 3rd, with expatriate voting to take place on May 28th.

Voting in Syria will only be held in government-held territory, and Syrians who fled through unofficial border crossings will be barred from voting abroad.

The foreign ministry said Germany had "joined the countries trying to block the presidential elections in Syria."

It accused Berlin of "supporting, funding and arming terrorist groups in a bid to destroy Syria," referring to the anti-Assad opposition.

"It is not surprising that these countries have taken the decision to prevent Syrian citizens living in their territory from exercising their constitutional right to vote in the embassies of their country," the ministry added.

Syria's opposition and much of the international community have criticized Damascus for its decision to hold the presidential vote, dismissing the ballot as a "farce."

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ELECTIONS

Macron braces for local election blow as French voters stay away from polls

French voters abstained in their millions Sunday from a final round of municipal elections predicted to deal a blow to the party of President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron braces for local election blow as French voters stay away from polls

Amid persistent fears of coronavirus contagion, just over a third of voters had turned out by 5:00 pm, three hours before polling stations close, the interior ministry said.

The turnout rate of 34.67 percent was lower even than nine hours into the first round of voting on March 15 that was marked by a record 55-percent abstention rate.

Three polling agencies predicted participation would reach no more than 41 percent by the day's close, compared to 62.2 percent in 2014.

Polls opened for some 16.5 million eligible voters at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in nearly 5,000 cities and towns where the first election round failed to yield a decisive outcome.

This represents about 15 percent of the country's municipal councils where power remains up for grabs, including the key cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg. 

The opening election round was held just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining deadly momentum, but the second phase, originally scheduled for March 22, was postponed after France went into lockdown.

A new date was set after the government's scientific council said it was possible to hold another round safely, but voters were required to wear face masks and urged to bring their own pens to lower the contamination risk. 

Many voters and election officials sported germ-blocking plastic visors, and plexiglass screens were erected between them at several polling stations, which also provided sanitising hand gel.

“If one can go shopping, why not go vote?” said an undeterred Martine Legros, 67, who cast her ballot in Dijon in eastern France.

High toll

Analysts expect the election to confirm that Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party — founded by the president ahead of his 2017 election win — has failed to gain a strong foothold at local level.

The party made lacklustre showings in March — notably in Paris where Macron's candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, came third.

“The problem is that the LREM is a new party that has no local roots and is struggling to impose itself as a (political) force,” analyst Jean Garrigues of the University of Orleans told AFP.

With a death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country went into lockdown on March 17, just two days after the first  round of municipal voting.

Most restrictions have now been eased.

Cabinet reshuffle? 

During the outbreak, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe — an unshowy technocrat — saw his popularity rise to a level higher than that of Macron, whose policies have been the target of months of protests and strikes.

Macron's critics say he is a president of the rich and out of touch with ordinary people.

Paris is buzzing with speculation that a poor showing by the LREM on Sunday could see Macron reshuffle his cabinet, possibly axing Philippe who campaigned to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.

Holding two executive posts is allowed under French law.

Firing Philippe would allow Macron “to claim he is delivering on his promise to ensure the 'second act' of his presidency takes note of failings revealed by his handling of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.

With just 22 months to the next presidential election, Macron's main challenger is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally.

Despite an abysmal performance in the last national elections, France's Socialists are expected Sunday to keep key regional centres, including Paris.

There will also be close attention on the Europe Ecology – The Greens party, which has its eye on the Alpine hub of Grenoble as well as Strasbourg and Lyon.

In Marseille, leftist Michele Rubirola hopes to take France's second city from the right after a quarter of a century of control.

For Le Pen's National Rally, the big prize would be Perpignan in the south, which could become the stage for the first far-right takeover of a French city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since 1995. 

The only region of France not voting Sunday is the overseas territory of Guiana in South America, where the pandemic is deemed too active to open polling stations.

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