PARIS – French voters went to the polls Sunday to choose mayors and other local leaders but the second round of the vote was put into question amid concerns over low turnout and the rapid spread of the new coronavirus across the country.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the turnout for Sunday's vote, which should be known overnight, will clearly be lower than usual as many people didn't go to polling stations over fears that would fuel the spread of the virus that has upended travel plans, closed schools and rattled financial markets.
Several political leaders from the right and the left called for the second round to be postponed. Sunday's vote came just as a drastic new rules took effect shutting down all of France's restaurants, museums and most stores to stem the spreading coronavirus that emerged in China late last year.
French health authorities on Sunday reported 5,423 confirmed cases of COVID-19 —an additional 900 compared to the day before— including 127 people who have died.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe praised the organization of the local vote and those “citizens who have chosen to go to the polls and have therefore shown their attachment to municipal democracy.”
But Philippe said he will gather a scientific committee and talk with the leaders of France's political parties in order to decide whether to organize the second round of voting, which is currently scheduled for March 22.
Philippe, who is running for mayor in his hometown of Le Havre, appeared to be leading in the first round, according to estimates from polling institutes based on partial results, which also put Paris's mayor, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, ahead.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen called said Sunday the second round “obviously won’t take place.” A candidate with her National Rally party, Steeve Briois, was elected Sunday with an absolute majority of the votes in Le Pen's fiefdom, the northern town of Henin-Beaumont.
A key figure in the far-right party, Louis Aliot, appeared largely ahead in the southern town of Perpignan, according to estimations by poll institutes.
French President Emmanuel Macron decided not to delay Sunday's election amid concerns that would be undemocratic. But the virus hurt Sunday's turnout, which was only 38% by 5 p.m., compared to 54% at that time in 2014.
“I believe it is important that that democratic moment take place,” Macron said after voting in his hometown of Le Touquet in northern France.
Macron said he keeps hydro-alcoholic gel in his pocket and added that he hasn’t been tested for the virus because he has no symptoms.
Those who showed up to the poll stations described a feeling of duty, despite the challenges.
“It's not ideal, but it's important we go vote. Life in this city and in society shouldn't stop," said Laure Marie Diers, a manager in Paris.
The government ordered unprecedented sanitary measures at polling stations.
Organizers were told to impose a one-meter (about three-foot) gap between people in lines, and to provide soap or hydro-alcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines. Voters were told to bring their own pens to sign the register.
But Associated Press reporters observed an uneven application of the rules in different polling stations.
Some had marked off the floor with tape to indicate one-meter spacing; others had no indication and voters bunched up irregularly. Some voters washed their hands before and after casting a ballot, others didn't bother. Staffers reassured voters that they were disinfecting voting booths every hour.
Sunday's elections are the first round of a two-round vote for leadership of all 35,000 French communes. Voters were choosing among lists of candidates running for mayor and town council seats. If no list gets the absolute majority in the first round, all lists that receive more than 10% of votes qualify for the second round.
While most voters cast ballots based on local issues, the elections are an important gauge of public sentiment before France's 2022 presidential election.
Sunday's voting is expected to be a tough challenge for Macron’s 3-year-old centrist party, which is competing for the first time in municipal elections and still lacks local roots across France. His government is also unpopular after months of protests from the yellow vest movement economic movement against perceived social injustice, and several weeks of strikes against the government's planned pension overhaul.
The conservative Republicans party, the Greens party, the far-right National Rally and the struggling Socialists are also vying for key mayoral seats and to strengthen their nationwide bases.
The main battleground is Paris, whose whose mayor is an influential figure in French politics and will oversee the 2024 Summer Olympics.
Definitive results from the first round were expected late Sunday.
David Keyton and Angela Charlton in Paris, Robert Edme in Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle, and Jean-Francois Badias in Strasbourg, contributed to this report.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.