Anxious France defies coronavirus to vote in local elections

France went to the polls in nationwide local elections on Sunday, defying a mounting health crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak that still risks keeping many voters at home.

Anxious France defies coronavirus to vote in local elections
Electoral officers wearing plastic gloves attend a voter on March 15, 2020, at a polling station in Mulhouse, eastern France: AFP

President Emmanuel Macron, for whom the two-round election is a crucial mid-term test, has insisted the polls to choose mayors and municipal councils go ahead to assure democratic continuity in the country.

“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.

Despite fresh restrictions announced Saturday evening — including the closure of non-essential public places such as cafes, restaurants, cinemas and gyms — polling stations across the country opened at 8:00 am (0700 GMT).

Officials have insisted that voting will take place under the tightest sanitary conditions, despite widespread fear that polling stations are ideal germ-spreading venues and a particular risk for older people.

Macron said on Thursday that 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 various measures to try to keep voters infection-free, including regular disinfection of voting booths, ensuring a safe distance between voters waiting in line, and providing sanitising hand gels on entry and exit.

Polling stations will remain open until 1700 GMT, 1800 GMT and 1900 GMT respectively, depending on the municipality, and a second round is scheduled to be held on March 22.

'Continuity of democratic life'

Observers say many are bound to shun the democratic exercise for fear of contamination with the virus, that has killed dozens and infected thousands more in France alone.

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 by schools.

“It is important at this time, following the advice of scientists as we have done, to ensure the continuity of our democratic life and that of our institutions,” Macron said.

Some 47.7 million people are registered to vote in some 35,000 municipalities in a country where mayors and local councillors enjoy high popularity compared to other levels of government.

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.

'Many will be dissuaded'

Many in France have questioned the wisdom of holding the vote even as the country indefinitely closed all creches, schools and universities, banned gatherings of more than 100 people, and urged residents to limit their movements.

Britain on Friday postponed its own May local elections for a year citing the coronavirus. But French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner defended his government's decision, saying there were about 1,000 voters to every French polling station on average.

And even if the participation rate is 60 percent — which is high — that would mean 600 people spread over 10 to 12 hours depending on the district.

The risk from voting for the elderly was no greater “than going shopping”, insisted Jean-Francois Delfraissy, chairman of France's coronavirus science council.

“It is certain that many people will be dissuaded from voting,” political historian Jean Garrigues of the University of Orleans told AFP.

Polls showed that young people — who are not at high risk of dying from COVID-19 — are most likely to hold it up as a reason not to vote.

Even if this is just a pretext for the politically apathetic, it could impact parties that young people are more likely to support — the Greens and the far-left France Unbowed, said Garrigues.

Older people, even though they are more motivated to vote, may end up staying away out of fear, thus robbing parties such as the right-wing Republicans or Macron's centre-right Republic on the Move (LREM) of votes.

This means that the political repercussions of high voter abstention among the young and the old could cancel each other out, said Garrigues.

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France scraps compulsory self-isolation after positive Covid test

France's public health body has outlined how Covid-19 rules will change on February 1st, including an end to compulsory self-isolation after a positive test result.

France scraps compulsory self-isolation after positive Covid test

Starting on February 1st, Covid rules will relax in France as the country ends compulsory isolation for those who test positive for the virus.

However, those travelling from China to France will still be required to agree to a random screening upon arrival and to isolate in the case of a positive Covid-19 test result. Travellers aged 11 and over coming from China must also provide a negative test result (less tan 48 hours) prior to boarding and those aged six and over must agree to wear a mask on board flights. These regulations – which was set to last until January 31st – is set to remain in place until February 15th.

The French public health body (The Direction générale de la santé or DGS)  announced the change on Saturday in a decree published in the “Journal Officiel” outlining the various ways the body will loosen previous coronavirus restrictions.

READ MORE: What Covid rules and recommendations remain for visiting France?

Those who were in contact with someone who tested positive – ie a contact cases – will also no longer be required to take a test, though the public health body stressed that both testing after contact and isolating after receiving a positive test remain recommended.

Previously, even asymptomatic people who had been in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19 were required to test on the second day after being notified that they were a “contact-case”.

These changes will take effect on February 1st.

READ MORE: What changes in France in February 2023?

The DGS also said that website SI-DEP, which records test results, will remain in operation until June 30th, however starting in February it will only collect personal data with the express permission of the patient.

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Additionally, the French government announced that sick leave procedures for people with Covid-19 will return to normal on February 1st – this means that those who test positive for Covid-19 will have the three-day wait period before daily sick benefits are required to be paid, as is usually the case. Previously, people with Covid-19 could expect daily sick benefits to begin at the start of their sick leave period (arrêt maladie in French).  

READ MORE: How sick leave pay in France compares to other countries in Europe

Covid tests are still available on walk-in basis from most pharmacies are are free to people who are fully vaccinated and registered in the French health system. Unvaccinated people, or visitors to France, have to pay up to a maximum of €22 for an antigen test of €49 for a PCR test. 

If you recently tested positive for Covid-19 in France – or you suspect you may have contracted Covid-19 – you can find some information for how to proceed here.

In explaining the changes that will begin in February, the French public health body also noted a drop in Covid-19 infections in the past month. As of January 30th, approximately 3,800 people in France had tested positive in the previous 24 hours for the coronavirus – which represents a decrease from the averages of 20,000 new cases per day about one month ago.