France holds local elections despite virus lockdown

France is holding nationwide elections to choose mayors and other local leaders despite a crackdown on public gatherings because of the new virus

Voting stations opened just as a drastic new order came into effect shutting down all of France's restaurants, museums, and most stores to stem the spreading coronavirus. The country has some 4,500 cases, including 91 people who have died.

The government ordered unprecedented sanitary measures at polling stations.

Organizers are under orders to allow a one-meter (about three-foot) gap between people in lines, and to provide soap or hydro-alcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines. Voters were told to bring their own pens to sign the voting register.

Associated Press reporters observed uneven application of the rules in different polling stations.

Sunday's elections are the first round of a two-round election for leadership of all 35,000 French communes, some of only a few dozen inhabitants. Voters will choose among lists of candidates running for mayor and town council seats.

If no list gets the absolute majority in the first round, all lists that receive more than 10% of votes will qualify for the second round, currently scheduled for March 22.

While most voters cast ballots based on local considerations, the elections are an important gauge of public sentiment before the 2022 presidential election.

Sunday's voting is a tough challenge for Macron’s 3-year-old centrist party, which is competing for the first time in municipal elections and still lacks local roots across France. His government is also unpopular after months of protests from the yellow vest movement against perceived social injustice, and several weeks of strikes and demonstrations against a planned pension overhaul.

The conservative Republicans party, the greens party, the far right National Rally and the struggling Socialists are also vying for key mayoral seats and to strengthen or save their nationwide political bases.

The main battleground is Paris, whose whose mayor is an influential figure in French politics and will oversee the 2024 Olympics.