People in France are voting in the final round of municipal elections, which are expected to yield a low voter turnout and a rebuke for the party of President Emmanuel Macron.
The opening round was held on March 15, just as the coronavirus pandemic was gaining momentum. The second phase, scheduled for March 22, was postponed after France went into lockdown on March 17.
Despite a record abstention rate of 55 percent, the first round yielded a decisive outcome in some 85 percent, or 30,000, of French communes.
This means political power remains up for grabs on Sunday in about 5,000 undecided municipal councils, including the key centres of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg.
Some 16.5 million people are registered to vote, with those turning out required to wear a face mask and urged to bring their own pens to minimise coronavirus contagion risk.
Analysts expect the election will confirm that Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party – founded by the president ahead of his 2017 election win – has failed to gain a strong foothold at the local level.
The party made lacklustre showings in March – notably in Paris where Macron’s candidate, former health minister Agnes Buzyn, finished third.
Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo is forecast to hold on to the capital in Sunday’s vote.
With a death toll approaching 30,000, France has been badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Most restrictions have now been eased, but there is widespread anger at the government over shortages of protective equipment, including face masks, in the early stages of the pandemic.
During the outbreak, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe – an unshowy technocrat – saw his popularity rise to a level higher than that of Macron, who critics say is a president of the rich.
Some have speculated that a poor showing by the LREM on Sunday could see Macron announce a major cabinet reshuffle, possibly axing Philippe, who campaigned to be mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre.
With 22 months to go to the next presidential election, Macron’s main challenger at a national level is far-right leader Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (RN).
A poll by Harris Interactive Epoka on Friday showed that 44 percent of respondents had a favourable opinion of Macron, while 51 percent were positive on Philippe, a jump of 13 points for the premier in a few months.
Despite an abysmal performance in the last presidential elections, France’s Socialists are expected to keep key regional centres, including Paris, where three women are vying for the top job.
There will also be close attention on the green Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV) party, which has its eye on the Alpine hub of Grenoble as well as Strasbourg and Lyon.
In Marseille, left-wing politician Michele Rubirola hopes to take France’s second city from the right after a quarter-century of control.
For Le Pen’s RN, the big prize would be the southeastern city of Perpignan, which could become the stage for the first far-right takeover of a city of more than 100,000 inhabitants since Toulon in 1995.
The only region of France where the vote is not taking place is the overseas territory of French Guiana in South America, where the pandemic is still deemed too active to proceed with the vote.