In the shadow of the virus – France votes in the first round of municipal elections | Europe
DESPITE A PARTIAL lockdown of their country, the French went to the polls on March 15th for a surreal first-round municipal vote. They are electing mayors to all 35,000 of the country’s cities, towns and villages. Polling stations were laid out so as to avoid physical contact, and staff wore masks and gloves to count the vote. But concerns about the coronavirus crisis meant that many voters preferred to stay away. The abstention rate increased sharply; from 36% in the last local elections in 2014 to 56%.
In the most closely watched race, for the Paris town hall, Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist sitting mayor, topped first-round voting, with 30%. She took an early lead against both Rachida Dati, the Republicans’ candidate, on 22%, and Agnès Buzyn, from Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM), who came in third with 18%. Lower turn-out among older voters seemed to have helped Ms Hidalgo, who is now favourite to keep her job.
In line with Europe-wide trends, the Green vote surged in many towns. Their candidate, Pierre Hurmic, came first in Bordeaux, the former bastion of Alain Juppé, a Republican ex-prime minister. Grégory Doucet, the Green candidate, led in Lyon, where Mr Macron’s close ally and former interior minister, Gérard Collomb, is currently mayor. And in Strasbourg the Greens’ Jeanne Barseghian also came top. Each will go through to a second-round vote.
It was a disappointing night for Mr Macron’s party, which had not yet been founded at the time of the previous elections and so has no town halls to defend. It looks poorly placed to capture any big cities. One small consolation was that Gérard Darmanin, Mr Macron’s budget minister, was elected mayor of the northern town of Tourcoing in the first round. Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, and a fellow former Republican, came first in voting in the Normandy port of Le Havre, with 43%.
As for Marine Le Pen’s populist National Rally (RN; formerly the National Front), it looked set to hold on to most of the 11 towns it captured last time, and possibly win a few more. Some of her candidates were elected outright in the first round. They include Steeve Briois, the current mayor of the former mining town of Hénin-Beaumont (who got 74%), Julien Sanchez, the sitting mayor of the southern town of Beaucaire (60%), and David Rachline, the mayor of the Mediterranean town of Fréjus (51%). Other towns with a strong RN showing included the southern town of Perpignan, where Louis Aliot came first with 34%.
In theory, the French return to the polls for a second-round vote on March 22nd. But it was a measure of the deep concern about the spread of covid-19 in the country that most of the discussion on French television on election night was about the virus rather than the results—and the wisdom of holding these elections at all. All nurseries, schools and universities are now shut in France, as are restaurants, bars, non-essential food stores, museums and sports centres.
For now, public transport is still running, and people are not yet confined entirely to their homes. But many suspect that stricter measures will be imposed shortly. On March 15th alone another 900 cases of covid-19 were recorded in France, taking the total to 5,400; 120 have died. Things are moving fast, and the government may find it difficult to hold a meaningful second round on the scheduled date, which could throw into question the validity of the entire election.