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FRANCE

Date set for coronavirus-delayed French elections

France will be called on to vote on June 28 in a postponed second round of local elections, unless a new coronavirus flare-up makes it too risky, the government said Friday.

Date set for coronavirus-delayed French elections
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. Photo: BENOIT TESSIER / POOL / AFP

The poll, originally set for March 22, was called off amid the lockdown due to the pandemic.

“After weighing the pros and cons, we believe that our democratic life must resume,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said at a press conference with Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. Masks will be obligatory, and voters will again be urged to come with their own pens for signing registries in a bid to minimise contagion risk.

Philippe said the government's scientific advisory panel had estimated that sufficient safeguards can be taken to mitigate contagion risks for the 16 million people in nearly 5,000 cities and towns eligible to vote after a clear winner did not emerge in the first round on March 15.

He acknowledged that political parties were divided on when to hold the new vote, with some urging a delay until September or later because of the likelihood of low turnout.

READ: How well does the French government's €7 billion plan to save small businesses really work?

Others argued that candidates could not effectively campaign behind face masks and without public meetings, handicaps that would give incumbents an edge. 

But if the vote was pushed back beyond the summer break, Philippe said the government would have to hold a re-run of the first round.

“It's a complex question, and the answer will cause disagreements,” Philippe said.

“Unfortunately, I've become used to having to choose between options that are all open to criticism”.

No mail-in ballots

The government drew heavy criticism after going ahead with the first round of voting just one day after ordering all bars, restaurants, cinemas and other non-essential businesses to close in the coronavirus fight.

The lockdown prompted many voters to stay home, with the abstention rate hitting a French record of 55 percent.

On March 16, the day after the first-round vote, President Emmanuel Macron called off the second round, originally set for March 22.

Although some 30,000 communes elected outright winners in the first round, races were still undecided in Paris and other key cities, preventing them from getting on with business including the awarding of infrastructure contracts.

The government hopes that holding the second round soon will help prod France's economic revival after two months of business closures and stay-at-home orders.

Even so, Castaner said campaigning “must not become a vector for the virus to circulate,” saying officials would facilitate measures for voting by proxy.

But he ruled out voting by mail, which France outlawed in 1975, saying posted ballots could jeopardise the “sincerity” of the vote.

Philippe himself is running a hotly contested race for mayor of the Atlantic port city of Le Havre — an office he is allowed to hold along with his job as prime minister under French law.

But Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party made lacklustre showings in several key cities in the first round, including Paris, where his former health minister Agnes Buzyn came in third.

The country has seen its number of daily deaths and infections steadily drop.

Authorities reported 75 new hospital fatalities on Friday — however that number did not include deaths in nursing homes due to the long weekend — raising its total toll to 28,289.

The number of patients in intensive care,  which reflects the pressure on hospitals, also fell again, down to 1,701 after hitting a peak of more than 7,000 in early April.

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EUROPEAN UNION

Norway flirts with the idea of a ‘mini Brexit’ in election campaign

On paper, Norway's election on Monday looks like it could cool Oslo's relationship with the European Union but analysts say that appearances may be deceiving.

Norway flirts with the idea of a 'mini Brexit' in election campaign
The Centre Party's leader Slagsvold Vedum has called for Norway's relationship with the European Union to be renegotiated. Photo: Gorm Kallestad / NTB / AFP

After eight years of a pro-European centre-right government, polls suggest the Scandinavian country is headed for a change of administration.

A left-green coalition in some shape or form is expected to emerge victorious, with the main opposition Labour Party relying on the backing of several eurosceptic parties to obtain a majority in parliament.

In its remote corner of Europe, Norway is not a member of the EU but it is closely linked to the bloc through the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement.

The deal gives Norway access to the common market in exchange for the adoption of most European directives.

Both the Centre Party and the Socialist Left — the Labour Party’s closest allies, which together have around 20 percent of voter support — have called for the marriage of convenience to be dissolved.

“The problem with the agreement we have today is that we gradually transfer more and more power from the Storting (Norway’s parliament), from Norwegian lawmakers to the bureaucrats in Brussels who are not accountable,” Centre Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum said in a recent televised debate.

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Defending the interests of its rural base, the Centre Party wants to replace the EEA with trade and cooperation agreements.

However, Labour leader Jonas Gahr Store, who is expected to become the next prime minister, does not want to jeopardise the country’s ties to the EU, by far Norway’s biggest trading partner.

“If I go to my wife and say ‘Look, we’ve been married for years and things are pretty good, but now I want to look around to see if there are any other options out there’… Nobody (in Brussels) is going to pick up the phone” and be willing to renegotiate the terms, Gahr Store said in the same debate.

Running with the same metaphor, Slagsvold Vedum snapped back: “If your wife were riding roughshod over you every day, maybe you would react.”

EU a ‘tough negotiating partner’

Initially, Brexit gave Norwegian eurosceptics a whiff of hope. But the difficulties in untangling British-EU ties put a damper on things.

“In Norway, we saw that the EU is a very tough negotiating partner and even a big country like Britain did not manage to win very much in its negotiations,” said Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

While Norwegians have rejected EU membership twice, in referendums in 1972 and 1994, a majority are in favour of the current EEA agreement.

During the election campaign, the EU issue has gradually been pushed to the back burner as the Centre Party — which briefly led in the polls — has seen its support deflate.

The nature of Norway’s relationship to the bloc will depend on the distribution of seats in parliament, but experts generally agree that little is likely to change.

“The Labour Party will surely be firm about the need to maintain the EEA agreement,” said Johannes Bergh, political scientist at the Institute for Social Research, “even if that means making concessions to the other parties in other areas”.

Closer cooperation over climate?

It’s possible that common issues, like the fight against climate change, could in fact bring Norway and the EU even closer.

“Cooperation with the EU will very likely become stronger because of the climate issue” which “could become a source of friction” within the next coalition, Sverdrup suggested.

“Even though the past 25 years have been a period of increasingly close cooperation, and though we can therefore expect that it will probably continue, there are still question marks” surrounding Norway’s future ties to the EU, he said.

These likely include the inclusion and strength of eurosceptics within the future government as well as the ability of coalition partners to agree on all EU-related issues.

Meanwhile, Brussels is looking on cautiously. The EEA agreement is “fundamental” for relations between the EU and its
partners Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, according to EU spokesman Peter Stano.

But when it comes to the rest, “we do not speculate on possible election outcomes nor do we comment on different party positions.”

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