March 14, 2020 / 11:19 PM / 23 days ago

Corona absence? French voters set to shun local elections amid virus fears

* France closes shops, restaurants as virus spreads quickly

* Election goes ahead despite people urged to stay home

* Politicians, doctors ask government for postponement

By John Irish

PARIS, March 15 (Reuters) - France heads to the polls on Sunday for local elections, but the rapid acceleration of the coronavirus across the country has led to officials fearing the vote could see mass abstentions with some politicians demanding a last minute postponement.

Voters are set to choose mayors for 35,000 town halls and almost half a million councillors in a vote overshadowed by the coronavirus outbreak and by growing public scepticism about traditional politics in France.

Authorities said on Saturday that 91 people had been killed by the virus and more than 4,500 were infected, including 300 who were in intensive care.

That prompted Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Saturday evening to shut most shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities from midnight and urge people to stay at home.

The government had already decided to close schools from Monday and urged those over 70 stay home as much as possible.

However, Philippe confirmed that the election would proceed under strict health guidelines with people asked to keep their distance from one another.

“Macron tells us to stay at home for our own safety and then tells us it’s ok to vote. It makes no sense. I won’t vote,” said 75-year-old Marie-Helene Corbellini.

President Emmanuel Macron decided to go ahead with the elections last week despite concerns that people may be more at risk at polling stations, saying it was vital the democratic system to continue functioning.

“We can fear (large) abstentions,” Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told reporters during a visit to a polling station on Saturday. “We understand the concerns of citizens who may not want to go to vote.”

Following Philippe’s announcement, the top politicians from five of France’s main regions called for the vote to be postponed and 17 doctors sent an open letter to Macron calling on him to reconsider.

Several political sources told Reuters there were also signs that poll clerks were pulling out of the vote. Whether at this late stage it would be possible to postpone the election is not clear, but Philippe left open the possibility that the second round on March 22 would not go ahead.

France’s municipal elections traditionally see a higher turnout, with local politicians often viewed in a better light than their national counterparts as they are considered more in touch with what’s going on in people’s everyday lives.

An Elabe poll published on Friday showed that more than 60 percent of French people were worried about going to public places.

“There will be material to disinfect and wash hands. Everybody is being asked to come with their own pen to sign (voting forms),” former Health Minister Agnes Buzyn, who is now running as the candidate for Macron’s party, told Reuters.

“Measures are being taken so that people do not queue or are not too close to each other.”

The elections are an important test for Macron after a wave of protests over the last year, first from the “yellow vests” movement and now from opponents of his plans to reform the French pensions system. His party is not expected to do well. (Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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