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Explainer: How do France's local elections work, who are the parties and where are the key battles?

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A man walks past a political poster depicting several of the candidats running in the upcoming French March 2020 mayoral elections.
A man walks past a political poster depicting several of the candidats running in the upcoming French March 2020 mayoral elections.   -   Copyright  LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP or licensors
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One of the only events in France not to be cancelled because of the coronavirus is local elections that get underway on Sunday.

The country will go to the polls on Sunday to elect mayors in 36,000 towns and cities.

French mayors do not sit in parliament, but they run city or town councils and set local policy. They also are representatives of the state's executive power at the local level. As such, the mayoral elections can be an important gauge of the balance of power in French politics.

AFP or licensors
A bottle of disinfectant gel and an election card stand on a ballot boxAFP or licensorsCHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT

How do municipal elections work in France?

If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the first round, he or she is elected mayor. If no candidate gains a majority in the first round — a common occurrence — the two candidates with the most votes face each other in a runoff, scheduled for Sunday 22 March.

Which are the main parties?

La France Insoumise (FI) (left-wing)

Instead of setting up lists with FI members as candidates, leader Jean-Luc Melenchon has encouraged and supported "citizen lists", which have bloomed from local groups and citizen initiatives around France.

In doing this, FI has said it wants to support local "auto-organisation" that it hopes could lead to a "citizen revolution".

But the party performed badly in the European elections, winning just 6 per cent of the vote.

In some cities, like Montpellier or Perpignan (south), FI has allied with other left-wing parties.

Melenchon has stressed that the municipal elections are not FI main goal. He has his eyes, and his movement, set on the 2022 presidential election.

The Socialists (centre-left)

Incumbent Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is polling at around 25 per cent in Paris, tied with her main opponent, Republicains candidate Rachida Dati.

The Socialists have struggled since their presidential candidate only won 6 per cent of the vote in 2017. The party still holds 12 cities of more than 100,000 people, which it hopes to keep.

It could do so and has bet on "union lists" with other left-wing parties, such as Jean-Luc Melenchon's FI, but holding Paris is its main goal.

The Green Party (environmental, centre left)

The Greens won 13,48 per cent of the vote in last year's European elections and are polling at 20 per cent in some cities.

"The time of the Greens has come," party leader Yannick Jadot has said ahead of the municipal elections.

The party may strike alliances with the left and could benefit from vote transfers in the second round.

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Yannick JadotAFP or licensorsLOU BENOIST

La Republique En Marche (LREM) (centre-right, liberal)

French President Emmanuel Macron's La Republique En Marche (LREM) is the newcomer in the race: in the last municipal elections in 2014, the party wasn't even founded and Macron had not even been appointed economy minister by then-president Francois Hollande.

LREM won a parliamentary majority in 2017, the year Macron was elected president. It came second at last year's European elections, behind Marine Le Pen's far-right party, Rassemblement National (RN).

Macron said in January that he wasn't concerned with the vote, declaring that "local elections are local elections". But it remains a big test ahead of the next presidential election in France in 2022. Macron’s support has waned in the face of the "gilets jaunes" ("yellow vests") crisis and his party must now prove that it can win in French regions and rural areas.

In both, Paris and Lyon, LREM candidates are running against former LREM members (former Macron advisor Cedric Villani in Paris and in Lyon, Gerard Collomb, the long-time mayor of the city and former interior minister), which lowers their chances of winning.

Around 2,000 councillors across France have become LREM members since 2017, but the party is hoping to gain far more, around 10,000, at the municipal elections.

Les Republicains (LR) (right-wing)

Les Republicains (LR) has a good chance of causing an upset in Paris, where its candidate, Rachida Dati, is neck-and-neck with incumbent Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo.

After failures at the presidential and parliamentary elections, and disastrous results in the European elections last year (8.5% of the vote), it would be a huge win for Les Republicains.

The party also hopes to keep big southern cities like Nice and Marseille. In some places, it has struck an alliance with Macron's LREM, such as in Toulouse where the LR candidate Jean-Luc Moudenc has LREM's support.

Yet with Sarkozy's former PM François Fillon currently on trial - accused of having given his wife a "fake job" as a parliamentary assistant for which he paid her over €1 million in public funds - the party has known better days.

Rassemblement National (RN) (far-right)

Marine Le Pen's far-right RN came first in the 2019 European elections and hopes to continue the trend.

In 2014, the party — back then still named National Front — won in eleven towns made up of more than 9,000 people. It hopes to gain more this time and has called for outsiders to run as RN candidates.

But it isn't targeting big cities: the biggest city in which there is an RN candidate is Perpignan, southern France, with a population of 121,000.

Can Macron's party make big gains?

This election is risky for the ruling party, which struggled in the regions during the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) crisis last year.

But while it may win in some big cities, in smaller cities and towns where the party's roots are weaker, LREM has played it safe. It has sent candidates in only half of France's towns of 10,000 people, often choosing to support LR candidates instead of sending their own.

Several ministers of Macron's cabinet are running for mayoral positions.

Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP / POOL
Rachida Dati (LR), Cedric Villani (independant), Serge Federbusch (RN), Marc Fauvelle (debate moderator), Anne Hidalgo (Paris' incumbent Socialist mayor), Agnes Buzyn (LREM)Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP / POOLCHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT

French Prime minister Edouard Philippe is running for re-election as mayor of Le Havre (northern France), minister Gerald Darmanin is running for the Tourcoing mayoralty (in the north too), and Agriculture minister Didier Guillaume in Biarritz (southwest).

Secretaries of State Marlène Schiappa and Sébastien Lecornu are respectively running on lists in Paris' 14th arrondissement and in Vernon, in Normandy.

Between the "gilets jaunes" ("yellow vests") movement and the various strikes and protests against Macron's controversial pensions reform, LREM's image has suffered.

In some cities like Nantes, Dijon and Strasbourg, LREM candidates have even concealed the party's logo on their posters.

In Paris, there are two levels for the vote: one for the Paris mayoralty, and 20 others for each city borough.

Socialist incumbent Hidalgo and Rachida Dati are neck-and-neck and will most likely face each other in the run-off vote on March 22.

These polls, if correct, forecast a major loss for Macron's LREM party since its candidate Benjamin Griveaux dropped out of the race in February after the release of private sex videos.

Griveaux had been trailing in polls for weeks before he quit the race, partly due to bizarre campaign pledges such as replacing Paris' Gare de l'Est — the train station linking the city with eastern France — with a "central park".

He was replaced in the Paris race by former health minister Agnes Buzyn, who chose to leave her cabinet post as the coronavirus outbreak hit France.

This decision is now likely to come to haunt her: the LREM candidate is polling at 19%.

Other Paris candidates include Green candidate David Belliard (12%) and independent candidate Cédric Villani (7%), a former Macron advisor on artificial intelligence and technology.

What about the coronavirus situation in France?

The coronavirus outbreak has led authorities to take measures to contain the spreading.

Voters at polling stations will be asked to remain at least one metre apart from each other, and if possible to use their own pen.

As of Friday 13 March, France counted 2,876 cases of coronavirus cases and 33 deaths, with regions of Paris, the East and the central Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes particularly hit.

Participation at French municipal elections has constantly decreased since 1983. Fewer than two out of three French citizens went to the polling station at the last municipal elections, in 2014.

The coronavirus outbreak is likely to put off voters: a poll has found that 28% of the French are considering not going to the polls to avoid contamination.

So far there has been no talk of postponing the elections.

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