Date set for coronavirus-delayed French elections

Date set for coronavirus-delayed French elections
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. Photo: BENOIT TESSIER / POOL / AFP
France will be called on to vote on June 28 in a postponed second round of local elections, unless a new coronavirus flare-up makes it too risky, the government said Friday.

The poll, originally set for March 22, was called off amid the lockdown due to the pandemic.

“After weighing the pros and cons, we believe that our democratic life must resume,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said at a press conference with Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. Masks will be obligatory, and voters will again be urged to come with their own pens for signing registries in a bid to minimise contagion risk.

Philippe said the government's scientific advisory panel had estimated that sufficient safeguards can be taken to mitigate contagion risks for the 16 million people in nearly 5,000 cities and towns eligible to vote after a clear winner did not emerge in the first round on March 15.

He acknowledged that political parties were divided on when to hold the new vote, with some urging a delay until September or later because of the likelihood of low turnout.

READ: How well does the French government's €7 billion plan to save small businesses really work?

Others argued that candidates could not effectively campaign behind face masks and without public meetings, handicaps that would give incumbents an edge. 

But if the vote was pushed back beyond the summer break, Philippe said the government would have to hold a re-run of the first round.

“It's a complex question, and the answer will cause disagreements,” Philippe said.

“Unfortunately, I've become used to having to choose between options that are all open to criticism”.

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No mail-in ballots

The government drew heavy criticism after going ahead with the first round of voting just one day after ordering all bars, restaurants, cinemas and other non-essential businesses to close in the coronavirus fight.

The lockdown prompted many voters to stay home, with the abstention rate hitting a French record of 55 percent.

On March 16, the day after the first-round vote, President Emmanuel Macron called off the second round, originally set for March 22.

Although some 30,000 communes elected outright winners in the first round, races were still undecided in Paris and other key cities, preventing them from getting on with business including the awarding of infrastructure contracts.

The government hopes that holding the second round soon will help prod France's economic revival after two months of business closures and stay-at-home orders.

Even so, Castaner said campaigning “must not become a vector for the virus to circulate,” saying officials would facilitate measures for voting by proxy.

But he ruled out voting by mail, which France outlawed in 1975, saying posted ballots could jeopardise the “sincerity” of the vote.

Philippe himself is running a hotly contested race for mayor of the Atlantic port city of Le Havre — an office he is allowed to hold along with his job as prime minister under French law.

But Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party made lacklustre showings in several key cities in the first round, including Paris, where his former health minister Agnes Buzyn came in third.

The country has seen its number of daily deaths and infections steadily drop.

Authorities reported 75 new hospital fatalities on Friday — however that number did not include deaths in nursing homes due to the long weekend — raising its total toll to 28,289.

The number of patients in intensive care,  which reflects the pressure on hospitals, also fell again, down to 1,701 after hitting a peak of more than 7,000 in early April.

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