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Record low turnout in French municipal elections amidst coronavirus fears

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A worker wearing protective gears uses disinfectant to clean a polling box as a precautionary measure against COVID-19 on the eve of the municipal elections.
A worker wearing protective gears uses disinfectant to clean a polling box as a precautionary measure against COVID-19 on the eve of the municipal elections.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Christophe Ena
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Fewer than half of voters in France turned out to the polls on Sunday amidst fears of the coronavirus outbreak.

The country decided to press ahead with local elections but ordered special measures to keep voters at a safe distance and to sanitise surfaces.

Nevertheless, fears around the virus hit turnout.

It was around 46 per cent on Sunday, compared with 63.5 per cent for the first round of voting at the last local elections in 2014.

The election was held the day after France ordered all non-essential businesses, such as cafés and restaurants, to close.

Measures to prevent further spread of the virus during elections

Organisers were under orders to allow a one-metre gap between people in lines and to provide soap or hydroalcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines.

Voters were told to bring their own pens to sign the voting register. Some workers in Lyon wore masks and disinfected pens for voters that did not have them.

Sunday's elections were the first round of a two-round election for leadership of all 35,000 French communes, some of only a few dozen inhabitants.

But it's unclear if the second round will take place after several politicians protested that it was held in the context of an evolving epidemic situation.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he would bring together scientific experts and political representatives in order to make a decision.

Environmentalists break through in first round of voting

Environmentalists did well in the elections, making strides in Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Lyon, Besançon, and Grenoble.

Paris' Mayor Anne Hidalgo received roughly 30% of votes, putting her ahead of her rivals.

In Marseille, the left-wing candidate received more of the vote than the right-wing Republican candidate, a surprise in the race to determine who would succeed the Republican mayor who stepped down after 25 years in power.

Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally party won some victories in the first round, including Hénin-Beaumont near Lens in northern France and Fréjus near Cannes in the south.

Le Pen was one of several politicians to criticise going ahead with the elections and said Sunday's results should stand but that the second round next week should be postponed.

Several French national media organisations reported the government was contemplating moving to a full lockdown, like in Spain and in Italy.

French authorities had already closed non-essential businesses, shut down schools, banned gatherings of more than 100 people and advised people to limit their social life, but Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said these measures had not been strictly adhered to.

We have seen too many people in cafes, in restaurants I would normally rejoice, because it is the France that we all love. But for a few weeks, this is not what we should be doing."
Edouard Philippe
French Prime Minister

"We have seen too many people in cafes, in restaurants," he explained, and stressed that "for a few weeks, this is not what we should be doing".

Paris has also followed other cities in shutting major tourist attractions including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

The prime minister expressed confidence "in the ability of French people to understand the gravity of the moment and to adopt all together civic, responsible and united behaviour that will allow us to overcome this crisis".

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