Virus voting: France holds local elections despite fears

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Paris' incumbent mayor Anne Hidalgo casts her ballot for the first round of the French municipal elections, Sunday March 15, 2020 in Paris. The new virus has shuttered all schools, banished cheek-kissing and upended daily life across France, but President Emmanuel Macron won't let it disrupt democracy, so he's maintaining nationwide elections this weekend. (Eliot Blondet/Pool via AP)

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.